The freshly brokenhearted underachiever who decides to change his life in some madcap way is among the fictional characters we’ve seen many times. The narrator of “Bopper’s Progress,” a novella by John Manderino, who lives and teaches writing in Maine, is just this type of character, and the reader can be forgiven for preparing to set sail on nonstop gag-filled waters.

The reader will be chastened.

Photo courtesy of John Manderino

It’s 1981, and Bopper, a shift manager at a Pizza Hut north of Chicago, is trying to get over losing his girlfriend to her Zenner-than-thou tennis instructor. Adrift, Bopper finds himself perusing the Zen literature she left behind with an admonishment to read it. In a Buddhist magazine, next to ads for things like “meditationwear,” Bopper spots a plug for a monthlong retreat at a Zen Buddhist monastery in the Catskill Mountains. As the novella opens, he’s been at the retreat for one week, is still having dreams about his ex and is less than enamored of his roommates, one a self-satisfied professor from India, the other a beach bum from San Diego.

The reader tags along as Bopper, following a schedule that serves as the book’s table of contents (“4:15 / Wake-up,” “5:00 / Meditation,” and so on), navigates his unfamiliar surroundings over one day. He likes the koan he’s given — “What is the meaning of ‘just enough?’ ” — but not his chores. What’s at stake in “Bopper’s Progress” is in its title: Will Bopper achieve enlightenment? “Body and mind fallen away, that’s how the books describe it,” he notes.

Since “Bopper’s Progress” has no conventional plot, the reader can’t be faulted for expecting the book’s f-bombs, scatological humor and slapstick elements to yield a ceaseless mockfest at meditation’s expense. Fortunately, Manderino takes a road higher than easy parody, delivering numerous quiet little comic set pieces. In one of the best, “What the Brush Wants,” Bopper and his roommates attend an art class during which Teacher tells everyone that “the brush knows where to go.” Bopper paints a large circle, and “the brush seems satisfied with that but I go ahead and add two little dabs for the eyes, a stroke for the nose, and a big curving line for a happy Buddha smile.” Teacher isn’t Buddha-smiling when he sees it. Bopper confesses that the brush did not tell him to make a smiley face. When Teacher asks, “Do you think you know more than the brush?” Bopper’s guileless response, which has the reader’s blessing, is, “To be honest? Yeah, I think I do.” As the scene plays out, Manderino rolls with Teacher’s sanctimoniousness and spotlights Bopper’s roommates’ juvenile grasping for approval — a bit of equal-opportunity soft-bladed skewering.

It takes longer than one would like for Bopper to work his charms on the reader, and some of the book’s jokes don’t quite succeed. (It’s also not clear why the story is set in 1981.) But by somewhere around the midpoint, readers will see the light: We really do care about this guy. Namaste, John Manderino.

Nell Beram, coauthor of “Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies,” recently has written for Bright Lights Film Journal, The Cut, and L’Officiel.

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