For his 1987 novel, Krazy Kat, Jay Cantor borrowed the characters of George Herriman’s sublimely surreal comic strip of the same name and reimagined them as melancholy American has-beens. Now journalist-turned-fiction writer Mark Jacobson has taken Godzilla, that 50-ton paragon of junk-movie culture, and turned him into a dope-smoking, TV-watching, hip-talking antihero with suicidal tendencies. What next? Nancy and Sluggo as yuppie burnouts? Mr. Ed as a racetrack hustler?

Jacobson’s Godzilla — here called Gojiro, his Japanese name — shares a few physical attributes with the original Lizard King: size (”five hundred feet from webfoot to cranial dome”), scales, and radioactive breath, but that’s about all. Gojiro starts out as a lowly monitor lizard on a Pacific atoll and is mutated into monsterhood by an H-bomb test, but, unlike his B-picture prototype, he’s no aggravated stomper of Tokyo. Instead, he’s lazy, morose, and devilishly quick with a pun (”Jive won’t get you Zen”) or a flippant put-down. In fact, he’s kind of like an emerald green, multiton Oscar Wilde.

When a telegram arrives at Radioactive Island, offering Gojiro a starring role in a movie, the monster is roused from his revolving bed (patterned after Hugh Hefner’s, except 200 feet wide). Accompanied by Yukio Komodo, his best friend and a weirdly cheerful Hiroshima survivor, Gojiro (”shot up with a special shrinkage potion that contracted him to a mere nine inches”) travels to the United States, first to Hollywood, and later, after a spiraling number of plot twists, to the eerie testing grounds at Los Alamos, cockpit of the Atomic Age. There, the monster confronts and defeats not only his own character flaws but the darkest energies and impulses of the 20th century. As Komodo says, ”A happy ending’s worth a sad beginning.”

And Gojiro does end happily, or at least affirmatively. Its ending, though, like its giddy middle and drowsy start, is oppressive with details and gratuitous invention, and often numbing with cute/purple prose. (”Legends and practices of the Zardic Line upon the Precious Pumice were copiously enumerated.”) Jacobson’s parable is funny in places, moving in others. But ultimately the original Godzilla, in all his lumbering, low-budget malevolence, says volumes more than Gojiro does about contemporary guilt and anxiety. There’s much to be said for cheesy simplicity.

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