My Name is Will: a Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare (238 pp., July 2008, Twelve) by Jess Winfield (nee Borgeson*) is a fun, light read that seems to have at its core a message of "Be yourself", if it has any message at all.
The author is a founding (now former) member of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and co-writer of their phenomenally successful, highly comedic "The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)", which has been performed worldwide. This is the author's first novel and like so many first-novels it is clearly quite autobiographical, though no doubt highly embellished and exaggerated (wink wink, nudge nudge). They say "write what you know" and Mr. Winfield definitely knows psychedelic drugs, casual sex, and Shakespeare. He also knows UC Santa Cruz and the greater Bay Area, where much of the action is set.
The novel comprises two tales intertwined across the centuries - one of a modern-day (mid 1980s) indolent, drifting grad student who, procrastinating on his thesis about Shakespeare, has a dubious mission thrust upon him, and the other of a young William Shakespeare about to burst the bonds of village life in 16th century England. There is a strict alternation in the subject of each chapter, present and past, and Winfield employs a pleasing device of introducing each chapter about the modern student with an excerpt from Shakespeare's works and each chapter about the Bard's imagined life with an excerpt from what seems to be a Master's thesis on Shakespeare. The two narrative threads are constructed as mirrors of each other, moving almost in lockstep, and there is a lot of fun with having Shakespeare see and hear things in ordinary life that were the precursors to some of his most memorable lines and characters. This nestles nicely with the autobiographical elements from Winfield's own life that are worked into the student's tale.
There is some lively conversational wordplay and punnery in the Shakespearean vein and many subtler gems for those more familiar with Shakespeare's works to enjoy. The chapters are short and the pacing is brisk. There is a quality to the writing that is reminiscent of light gonzo journalism ala Rolling Stone magazine in the late-70s/early-80s, i.e. when sex was safe and drugs were fun and idle dalliances with both were harmless and without long-term consequences (except, perhaps, pregnancy). There are broad swipes at Reagan-era drug policies and Elizabethan religious issues but otherwise there aren't any political or cultural axes to grind. The focus is smaller, on the individual looking to find, to carve out, his place in the world. Being overall a madcap comedic romp, there isn't much focus at all, really, and that's to the good. Set in the distant past and a couple of decades ago it is a great diversion from present troubles while shedding a little light on more timeless issues of family, personal responsibility, and destiny.
* See http://www.jesswinfield.com/faq.html for explication