When I was a teenager, I became addicted to a late-night horror movie host named Bestoink Dooley. Based in Atlanta, Bistoink came on at midnight, and I can still see his stark-white face and his silly grin, complete with bloody fangs as he crawled out of his coffin and lurched toward the camera. Interspersed between adds for used car lots and factory-rebate furniture, Bistoink and his assistant, a Vampirella clone, sang, delivered bad puns about graves and ghouls, and hosted a black-and-white horror film - things like “The Mummy’s Curse” and “Cat People.” I was addicted to Bestoink Dooley, and I have no sensible explanation for my steadfast loyalty. Eventually, I learned that there was someone like Bistoink on every major television station in American during the 1950s and through the 1970s. Many of them had clubs, membership cards and autographed photos.
One of the major characters in Witches on the Road Tonight is Eddie Alley, better known as Captain Casket. At one time, Captain Casket had hosted a popular midnight show, complete with a theme song that bore more than a passing resemblance to Disney’s Mouseketeers:
Who’s the digger of the grave
For you, and you and me?
It is all innocuous fun, of course, but Captain Casket’s show has been cancelled and now, his alter-ego, Eddie Alley has decided to chuck it all. He has swallowed a mega-dose of sleeping pills, and as he lies in his old prop coffin in his New York apartment, he muses on his life, his loves, his tragic mistakes and Wallis, his famous daughter, who is the celebrity anchor of a major TV news channel. The mistake he doesn’t want to remember is the boy named Jasper. As Eddie dozes, remembering his life in fits and starts, Witches on the Road Tonight occasionally becomes reminiscent of another great pop horror classic, The Late, Great Creature by Brock Brower.
Eddie’s origins are fascinating. Born in a remote cove in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Eddie’s mother, Cora Alley, has a reputation as a witch. The local folks tell stories of the men who visited Cora and were never seen again. Eddie tells us that the stories are true and that he has watched his mother through a keyhole in her bedroom door and has seen her strip off her skin, hang it on a peg and fly away through an open window.
A turning point in young Eddie’s life came during WW II when he is struck by the car of two WPA workers, Tucker and Sonia Hayes, who are working on an illustrated book on Appalachia. Eventually, Tucker reveals that he is a frustrated, alcoholic playwright, and Sonia a gifted photographer, is not really Tucker’s wife, but she is pregnant with his child. In an attempt to entertain the injured Eddie, Tucker shows him a film: a 13-minute silent version of “Dracula” on a hand-operated projector.
Witches on the Road Tonight is an intricately woven tale with frequent twists that lead the characters in unexpected revelations. Eddie’s chance encounter with Tucker Hayes (and “Dracula”) will provide the prime motivation for Eddie Alley’s decision to find his way to New York where he will find work at a television station where he graduates from a “gofer” to Captain Casket. (Of course, his marriage to the daughter of the station owner help, a bit.)
But what about Cora Alley, who appears to be a gaunt, malnourished mountain woman one day and a vigorous and robust siren the next? Does she truly “ride men” over and through the foggy mountain coves at night? Does she really have a curious rapport with a mountain panther that does her bidding? What happened to Tucker Hayes? Are his bones scattered through the mountain undergrowth, or does he reside in the strange cabin on the crest of a distant (an unapproachable) peak?
Of course, this is not the story of a single witch but three witches: Cora, Eddie and Wallis. The dark powers that Sheri Holman finds in a mountain cove where a woman supports herself by searching for the elusive herb, ginseng also abide in the DNA of the whimsical, bisexual Captain Casket and his frustrated and guilt-ridden daughter who also finds night-time solace with one-night stands.
However, there remains another character: his name is Jasper and he is a homeless waif that shows up at the television station where Captain Casket’s show originates. Remembering his own childhood, Eddie gives Jasper the role of his assistant on his show. Essentially, he rationalizes his action by casting himself as a “father figure” for Jasper. To make matters worse, Wallis is drawn to the troubled young man. Thus begins a conflict that will eventually bring tragic consequences.
At one point in Witches on the Road Tonight, the successful, middle-aged Eddie returns home to his mother’s abandoned dwelling. Eddie has a momentary wish to return and stay, and with the assistance of Jasper and Wallis, he sets about making his mother’s rustic shack a possible home. It doesn’t work, of course. For this witch-boy, there is no going home again.
In addition to producing a compelling tale that blends the supernatural with the unacknowledged darkness in the human heart, Sheri Holman’s novel is packed with tantalizing bits of information about witchcraft, herbs and Appalachian superstitions. I was pleased to learn that a poison oak rash can be avoided by scrubbing your body with jewel weed (I live in the heart of Appalachia, but I missed that one). There is also considerable information on the history of ginseng, that marvelous plant that allegedly makes “old guys dangerous again.”
As for the fate of Tucker Hayes, Holman gives you multiple choices, but I think the panther (painter) got him, even though he tried to evade it with the same tactics that Granny Pop used in Cattaloochee. Granny Pop took off her clothes and threw them behind her. Eventually, she ran out of clothes, and so did Tucker.
Witches on the Road Tonight by Sheri Holman. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011. 263 pages.
Kind Hearts, this is an astonishing book. Frankly, I never would have read this one, if I had not blundered on a comment by Donna Tartt (my pick for our greatest living Southern writer). Recently, when a book store owner in Greenwood, Mississippi asked her if she had a favorite book, Donna immediately announced that Skippy Dies was definitely the “book of the year.” That is good enough for me. I immediately launched an internet search and scored a used paperback copy. I advise you to do the same.
The setting of Skippy Dies is Seabrook College, the home of some 400 male students (average age is 14) in Dublin, Ireland. Operated by the Catholic church, the college exudes tradition and moral rectitude — the kind of atmosphere that is highly valued by upwardly mobile, middle-class parents who are eager to pass on the irksome job of raising sons to a Seabrook’s motley crew of teachers who run the gamut from merely incompetent to disturbingly neurotic.
It is probably evasive to say that the students are just average 14-year-olds, so to be more specific, they are: lonely, horny, angry, devious, naive and confused. Often, they can embody contradictory emotions ... such as fragile egos and a surprising penchant for cruelty and violence.
Author Paul Murray gets his novel off to a provocative start by killing his protagonist, Skippy (Danny Juster) on the first page. Skippy expires while his roommate, Ruprucht Van Doren, is gorging himself on doughnuts (Ruprucht holds the record for the greatest number of doughnuts consumed at a single sitting). The two boys are in the college hangout, Ed’s Doughnut Shop, where a large number of students watch Skippy twitch and convulse as he struggles to write a farewell message to his girlfriend, Lori. (He is using a puddle of syrup on the floor and slowly writes “Tell Lori.....” and then dies).
The rest of this hefty novel consists of a 600-page flashback that relates how poor Skippy came to be lying on the floor surrounded by soggy doughnuts and blobs of blueberry syrup.
Seabrook College easily qualifies as a microcosm of the world. The student body is racially diverse, consisting of significant numbers of Afro-Americans, Irish, Japanese, Italian, French and Chinese students who share a common dilemma. They are all homesick. In addition, they have all brought their problems and talents to Seabrook. Skippy swims, but is asthmatic; Ruprucht is the school genius who holds court in his own computer lab in the basement.
Although many excel at rugby or music, the bond that binds them is not scholastic. For most of them, it is the shameful knowledge that they have been abandoned at Seabrook like unclaimed luggage. Their parents have paid the excessive tuition in the belief that if their sons are safe and well-fed, the parents can get on with their social life and their careers without feeling guilty about the fact that they rarely visit the school and are often reluctant to have their sons home for the holidays.
Drugs are everywhere, thanks to a steady supply provided by two students, Carl and Barrie (who are locals who do not live in the college dorms), the majority of the students are under the influence of either diet pills, pot, Ritalin or ecstasy, and yes, due to the existence of an all-girl school nearby (Saint Bridget’s), there are opportunities for chaperoned dances. (One of the most bizarre and comical episodes in this novel occurs at the Halloween Dance where a combination of rap music, drugs, a power failure and a lack of supervision — where are the chaperones? — produces a kind of masquerade/pubescent orgy).
Most of the faculty and administration at Seabrook are asleep at the wheel. The acting principal, Greg Costigan (known as the Automator to the students), is a pompous, arrogant windbag who is totally inept and spends most of his time writing florid speeches about the school’s traditions and terrorizing the demoralized faculty. Father Green, the French teacher, is an ancient pedophile (the students call him Pere Vert) works diligently with the Dublin poor ... possibly as pertinence for a shameful past in Africa. The history teacher, known as Howard the Coward (due to a mysterious incident when he was a Seabrook student himself), struggles to deal with his own infidelity and his determination to be a competent teacher. Father Slattery, the English teacher, is slowly losing his struggle with age and memory and teaches a few of Robert Frost’s poems over and over. Tom Roche has been crippled by an accident (the same accident that made poor Howard ... the Coward!) and nurses a secret that is destroying him. In summary, these tortured, comical, tragic and sometimes gifted educators are trapped within the confines of Seabrook in much the same manner as their students. Some of them yearn to escape but lack the courage to leave.
Skippy Dies manages to run the gamut from comical farce to a kind of dark medication on anguish of being young and alone. Skippy Dies is by turns comical, ribald and heartbreaking. Some of the most hilarious passages involve the students’ obsession with sex ....like Dennis who thinks that Frost’s poem, “The Road not Taken” is about anal sex. As each tragi-comic episode unfolds, poor inept Skippy dreams that his parents (who never visit) will take him home. He views the world around him with anxiety and searches for a safe haven. When he blunders into a relationship with the jaded and self-centered Lori from Saint Bridgets, he quickly becomes a pawn manipulated by a shallow and morally corrupt girl. Stalked by Carl (Lori’s true love), haunted by vague memories of sexual abuse, terrified by Father Green, badgered by his swimming coach and his father who urges him to “be all he can be” in an impending swimming meet, poor Skippy desperately searches for an escape ... which are provided by the pills under his pillow.
For a while, it appears that fat Ruprucht, Skippy’s room-mate, has the answer to all of the dreams and hopes of his fellow students. In his basement lab Ruprucht works tirelessly, constructing marvelous machines that will provide an access to “other dimensions” (Ruprucht’s research has lead him to believe that there are eleven). Under the hopeful eyes of his fellow students, this pudgy wizard promises them paradise in another dimension. As the experiments become more bizarre, finally requiring that Rupert relocate their “experiment” to the laundry room of Saint Bridgets, the students’ faith in Ruprucht begins to falter. Is he a fraud? If so, what will they do? If he is rejected, what will become of Ruprucht?
It is easy to see why Donna Tartt loves Skippy Dies since her own novel, The Secret Society, concerns a private school and the anguished lives of its students. Both novels demonstrate a heartfelt insight into the anguish of being young.
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. Faber and Faber, 2010. 661 pages
The fierce Santa Ana winds that blow through southern California are as much a recurring character in The Triggerman’s Dance as any of the troubled (and often doomed) people who scheme, deceive and betray each other in this tension-ridden novel. Frequently, just as the action reaches a suspenseful moment, just as T. Jefferson Parker’s protagonist finds himself facing threat, revelation or a bit of steamy romance ... the wind enters like some kind of whimsical deity that enjoys disrupting outdoor banquets, destroying expensive hairdos and playing havoc with everybody’s studied poise. Capable of speeds ranging for 60 to 100 miles an hour, a Santa Ana can knock down golfers, hunting parties and picnickers and send them racing for cover. Their frequent and abrupt arrival in The Triggerman’s Dance seems to be a way of reminding everyone that nothing is important ... least of all, the schemes of the arrogant, wealthy and powerful men who attempt to control the lives of others.
Just a short time ago, John Menden thought he was on the brink of having it all: He wrote a popular column in a small newspaper (The Anza Valley News), lived in a remote section of Orange County where he fished and hunted with his three adorable dogs; cooks; drinks too much; and plans to marry a girl named Rebecca (who just happens to be engaged to somebody else). Then, on a rainy afternoon, Rebecca is gunned down ... shot twice as she crosses a parking lot to her car. Who did it, and more importantly, why? When Menden quits his job and spend much of the following six month in a deep, alcoholic depression, he decides that there is only one possible answer. Rebecca’s death was a mistake. The real target was Susan Baum, an aging, eccentric journalist who has a knack for offending the wrong people ... people like Vann Holt, one of Orange County’s arch conservatives who practices his own form of brutal racism while running a right-wing security empire that has bases in foreign countries.
However, one of the unique merits of The Triggerman’s Dance is the fact that Vann Holt is a fascinating and provocative character. Parker is not content to paint Holt as a black-hearted, arrogant, egotist. Holt is likable! The reader learns that almost a decade ago, Holt walked away from a distinguished career with the FBI, abandoned his religion and devoted himself to building an impressive empire complete with his own military force. Secure in a fortress-like retreat in the mountains above Cosa Mesa, Holt wages his own personal war on Chinese and Mexican drug lords and career criminals. His soldiers, called Holt Men, perform a slick and highly effective version of vigilante justice. It is the tragedy that made Holt into a kind of avenging angel that gives this novel its greatest appeal.
Holt’s son and wife were shot down by a deranged drug addict. Patrick, the son, died and Caroline, Holt’s wife, suffered severe brain damage that left her a deranged invalid. In the midst of Holt’s grief, he learns that Susan Baum had been using her popular column to infer that Patrick was a rapist who preyed on Mexican girls while he pretended to be a kind of social worker for the Church of Latter Day Saints. Taking his daughter, Valerie, the only surviving member of his family, Holt retreats to a mountainous section called Top of the World, and begins to plot his revenge. In addition to purging the world of drug addicts (especially Mexican and Chinese), he wants to kill a woman he has never met ... the woman who destroyed his son’s good name and made his wife a deranged invalid.
However, our cast of characters is not complete without Joshua Weinstein, FBI agent, who, like Vann Holt, is obsessed with vengeance. Joshua was engaged to Rebecca, and had learned one day prior to her death that she was in love with another man. With his fellow agent (and sometime lover) Sharon Dumars, he begins a dogged surveillance of John Mendon. The despondent lover drinks and broods, apparently indifferent to the fact that he is being stalked by Rebecca’s ex-fiance.
The heart of The Triggerman’s Dance is Weinstein’s scheme to bring down Vann Holt and destroy the complex network of security and surveillance operations that he has created. When he finally approaches Mendon, he learns that the boozing journalist shares his obsession. Together, they will track down and destroy the man who killed Rebecca — Vann Holt. The plan is to find a way for Mendon to infiltrate Van Holt’s fortress and find proof of Holt’s guilt. To accomplish that end, Weinstein and Mendon devise a daring plan in which Mendon “rescues” Holt’s daughter, Valerie from a near-rape at a local tavern by a vicious motorcycle gang. If this novel has a weak link, it is this dramatic rescue in which the gang (all FBI agents) creates havoc by brutalizing Mendon, killing one of his dogs and burning his trailer. When the smoke clears, Valerie has been “rescued” and the gang of lawless crackheads has vanished down the highway, Mendon is left to deal with the gratitude of a thankful father who invites the hero home.
It is not all smooth sailing. Vann Holt is paranoid by nature and he has surrounded himself with a devoted staff who are immediately suspicious of Mendon. In fact, several of Vann Holt’s “inner circle” tell Mendon that they know he is a fraud, but they can’t prove it ... yet. To complicate matters further, Mendon falls in love with Valerie and begins to ponder the fact that his mission is to destroy her father. Since Mendon is subjected to constant surveillance, much of his time is spent developing schemes for passing messages to Weinstein or attempting to allay Vann’s suspicions by actually participating in some of his vigilante raids.
Anyone who is a fan of F. Jefferson Parker will readily acknowledge that this author’s greatest gift is an uncanny talent for developing tension and suspense. The Triggerman’s Dance qualifies as a classic example of Parker’s craft. However, there is more going on here than action that makes the reader hold his breath. The author’s narrative often transcends a typical murder mystery formula. Certainly, the skillful details that defines Vann Holt’s personality, often comes near to making him a sympathetic character. Certainly, there is more to this tortured and complex man than can be summed up by dismissing him as an arrogant bigot.
If you are unfamiliar with F. Jefferson Parker and appreciate quality crime fiction, you might check out any of a dozen novels that are readily available.
The Triggerman’s Dance by T. Jefferson Parker. Hyperion Press, 1998. 540 pages.
One night last week, when I was watching what must have been the 500th recounting of the Casey Anthony trial, I suddenly recalled my favorite subject to teach in college — Greek mythology. At first, I wasn’t certain about the connection, but as I listened to Nancy Grace and her tribunal of experts rage and whine while images of luckless little Caylee and her foolish mother flowed across the screen, I suddenly remembered the Furies.
If I remember my Edith Hamilton’s Mythology correctly, the Furies were a host of invisible tormentors that the gods sent to torment mortals who had committed unforgivable crimes ... patricide or infanticide, for example. The immortal Furies pursued their victims for the remainder of their mortal lives, lashing them with whips and relentlessly whispering their sins in their ears.
The marks of the whip caused the victim to age rapidly, and, the victims were troubled by sleepless nights. Of course, this “divine punishment” was an imaginative way of describing the torments of a guilty conscious.
Now, as I watch Casey Anthony flee the Orange County courthouse (again) amid shouts of “Baby Killer” and “Justice for Caylee,” I am struck by similarities to the ancient Furies. Is it possible that our modern equivalent of the Furies resides in those angry citizens who are waving placards in Orlando and Jacksonville? Does a Fury reside in Nancy Grace? As Casey, runs towards a car that will spirit her away to safety, does she hear the shouts? Does she flinch as though struck by an invisible whip?
I’m getting carried away here but I can’t help it. I love good theater, even when it is dispensed by CNN instead of Netflex. Besides, I am suddenly reminded of O.J., who like one of those doomed Greek heroes was first blessed and then cursed by the gods. When I see him now, overweight, getting a bit flabby, with that sheepish grin (like the cat that ate the canary), I get the distinct feeling that O. J. didn’t get away with anything. He will live out the remainder of his life with his crime branded on his forehead.
I liked my theory about the Furies so much, I told a friend of mine about it. He didn’t agree. He said that O. J. and Casey lacked nobility. In effect, he said that their lives were too petty and trivial. Certainly, they didn’t deserve a punishment as awe-inspiring of the wrath of the gods. In other words, only arrogant kings or immoral queens deserved to be tormented by the Furies. Only the chosen have the depth of soul to be guilty of hubris.
Well, I thought about that and I don’t agree. I remember what that grand old expert on living and dead religions, Joseph Campbell, said about those mythical heroes and heroines. He recalled having seen Oedipus boarding a New York subway, Helen of Troy shopping on 5th Avenue, or perhaps Odysseus getting out of a taxi on Broadway. He said that all of the great stories are a kind of template that is destined to be repeated for all eternity.
Today, the great tales are not the sole property of royalty, but belong to all of us. Tristram may be a dishwasher in a Greek restaurant where Iseult is a waitress. Achilles may be a pro-Nazi skinhead in London and Orpheus may be in Nashville where he just released his first CD.
Campbell felt that the petty, mean-spirited, cruel — as well as the gentle, faithful and compassionate — might reenact a story that has been told and then forgotten numerous times. None of them are noble, but they might acquire something akin to nobility by suffering. In other words, selfish, dissembling Casey Anthony may be granted forgiveness at some point in the future. In the tragic story of Oedipus, the old, blind king is only forgiven when he is dying. Then the Furies become his comforters and grant him peace.
So, I am wondering about those who escape earthly justice, evade prison and rush off to complete book/film script deals and become some kind of shady celebrity who is occasionally exhibited like an exotic reptile on TV talk shows ... is that “success in show business” possibly deceptive? What is it like spending the rest of your life knowing what people think when they see you? Does O. J. feel that he really got away with something? Is he not painfully aware that there are places where he can never go again? As for Casey, what is your freedom worth if you must hide?
There is a marvelous way to end this ordeal, both for Casey and O. J. They need to confess. Neither can be arrested or imprisoned again. What if Casey Anthony confessed to David Letterman, sitting right there on the guest couch between say .... maybe Madonna and Elton John? What if O. J. confessed to Oprah? What if those confessions were rerun for a solid month like a mobius strip? How would you feel about these two sinners? Would you forgive them? Would the Furies disappear?
When I was nine years old, I once caught a 12-inch brown trout at the point where two small Jackson County streams, Cope Creek and Scotts Creek, converge. I ran all the way home with the fish in a large, leaky can and dumped it in waist-high concrete trough on our back porch that my grandfather had built. It was fed by a spring a quarter of a mile away. Our milk and butter sat in jars and crocks in this cold, rushing water, and for a while, my trout lived there, lurking behind jars of buttermilk and cream. When I would plunge my hand into that cold water and touch the back of “my fish,” it would surge and race back and forth in the trough, stirring up the sediment on the bottom. I fed it cornbread and night crawlers and it grew a bit. Ah, but my fish died one night when it attempted to catch a firefly. I found it the next morning, stiff as a cold pork chop with the firefly still glimmering in its mouth. There might be a moral there, somewhere.
When I opened Ron Rash’s Waking, I was glad to find my trout suddenly restored to me:
Caught by my uncle
In the Watauga River,
brought back in a bucket
because some believed
its gills were like filters
that pureness poured into
springhouse’s trough pool,
and soon it was thriving
on sweet corn and biscuits,
guarding that spring-gush,
brushing my fingers
as I swirled the water
up in my palm cup
tasted its quickness
swimming inside me.
No doubt, untold numbers of mountain boys brought a trout home, and when they read this poem, I think that something in their hearts will hum like a resonating chord on a guitar.
To me, this resonance is the essence of Rash’s art: the ability to create an image so vivid, it unleashes the sleeping memories in the readers’ heart. For example, Nolan White, the Watauga clock-maker, who showed Rash how he “set each gear in place” and when the clock begins to run, the poet hears “that one pulse among many.”
However, some of the images are riveting and painful to contemplate: the “cold, beckoning eyes” in the face of a drowned girl trapped beneath a ledge in a river’s surging waters (like the girl in Rash’s novel Saints by the River); the grave of 13-year-old David Shelton (who may be found in Rash’s novel, The World Made Straight), who asked his executioners “a single mercy – to not be shot like his father, in the face.”
An especially memorable one is the luckless drunk, Charlie Starnes, whose alcohol-soaked clothing caught fire and suddenly, poor Charlie “wore a suit/ of flames” as he raced “through barb wire into/ a cornfield where they found him/ face down like a felled scarecrow.”
There are poems about pocket knives, an old woman’s treasured mirror, a pair of glasses removed from a grandmother’s dead face; an ancient shade tree, junk cars – family quilts, car tags on a barn wall, raspberries – all familiar details in the lives of the people whose descendants live in places called Dismal, Blowing Rock, Boone, Shelton Laurel, Spillcorn Cove and Goshen Creek. When defined by Rash, these objects come to resemble the unearthed shards or fragments of a vanquished culture. Wrapped in the language of a true poet, these “fragments” acquire a numinous or sacred quality.
There is also a marvelous cast of memorable characters. I especially liked the old veterinarian who specializes in womb-locked calves. He remembers a cold, winter night somewhere in Madison County “back in the 50’s,” when he confronted a panther “yellow eyes as bright as truck beams/black-tipped tail swishing before/ leaping away through the trees/ back into extinction.”
Then there is a marvelous monologue by an alcoholic “felled angel” who now sells serpents to snake-handling churches, noting that his “God now is a bottle of Jack Daniels.” However, the most poignant poem in this collection might be “Woman Among Lightning: Catawba County Fair, 1962.” This poem captures the anguish of a poor mountain woman who has fled a life “that leaks away like blood on land that is always wanting more.” She has come down to the fair grounds to ride the Ferris Wheel, which “dredges buckets of darkness out of sky.” While lightning flashes around her, she hangs suspended for a moment “above field and fence,” as far as “a fistful of hard-earned quarters can take her” from the bleakness of her life.
Finally, there is a recurring theme in Waking that might have special significance to readers who find a progression of ideas in Rash’s work. This collection is rooted in Rash’s growing interest in “racial memory,” or to be more specific, the Celtic tradition. Some of the poems in this collection stress Rash’s growing awareness of the bedrock of Appalachian culture. Instead of turning to classical Greek or English mythologies, Rash has a preference for an ancient tradition that reflects his own experience – the ancient Celtic work, The Mabinogion. I believe that it is here, amid tales of magic and witchery – a world filled with the merging of incompatible things, where the dead return (“The Crossing”) and Time sometimes stand still – that Rash feels “at home.”
In the poem, “Resonance,” Rash describes “a trout alive in a burning tree,” an image that readily suggest the world of The Mabinogion, which, like Rash’s own work, teems with water in all of its aspects (floods, baptism, drowned towns, rebirth, etc.). It might be especially noteworthy that the poem, “Rhiannon” describes the plight of a character in The Mabinogion, who is falsely accused of murdering and consuming her own child. Her child has been stolen while Rhiannon sleeps (her enemies smear the sleeping woman’s face and hands with blood). In time, her child is returned to her and he becomes a famous Welsh hero, Peryderi.
If I have read this aspect of Waking correctly, I am delighted and frankly, I can’t wait to see what the world of The Mabinogion – a world filled with alternate universes, curses, a host of mythical beings, including the grandfather of Merlin, the magician in Arthurian legend – just how will this touch of the fey and strange affect Rash’s future work. I also feel that Rash’s use of the word “palimpsest,” which describes ancient manuscripts in which the original message has been erased but can still be discerned. A new message can be written on such a document, but the original message – like the faded traces of a milk trail through a pasture, remains. What is that dim message? Is it “a name carried far” from Wales to Shenandoah - a link to Appalachia’s “racial memory?”
Waking by Ron Rash. Hub City Press, 2011. 76 pages.
When I was a child riding the backroads of Western North Carolina with my grandfather in his big red Esso truck, he used to point out abandoned farms to me. Many of the barns and houses were branded with the three letters “GTT.”
“That means gone to Texas,” my grandfather told me. He added that many times the former owners were not really in Texas, but in High Point or in some distant place on the west coast called Sedro Woolley, but people tended to used GTT anyway since it had become a familiar way of saying, “I’ve had enough.”
In the wake of the depression and the dust bowl, poor farmers in the Southeastern United States often heard rumors of fertile lands and rich timber reserves in the east. Some of the cautious ones, reluctant to abandon the “old home place,” often sent a family member to investigate. In a sense that is what happens with Jim, the “going on 13” narrator of Chinaberry, who leaves Alabama with Ernest, a friend of the family and two local teenagers referred to as “the knuckleheads.” They hope to find steady work in Texas and report back to their friends and family in Alabama on such essentials as stable employment, the quality of the water, the food and the climate.
Although the water turned out to be pretty bad, Jim, Ernest and the knuckleheads blunder into employment with a wealthy landowner named Anson Winters who raises cotton and cattle. Jim thinks that he will spend the summer dragging a cotton sack through the tropical Texas heat with hundreds of other pickers. However, while the boy is ruefully considering the shimmering heat and the soul-killing labor awaiting him, a remarkable event occurs. After picking cotton for only a few hours, Anson Winters suddenly informs Jim that he will be living with him and his wife, Lurie, in a place called Chinaberry. Jim never picks cotton again.
In many ways, Chinaberry, reads like a coming-of-age fable. Although Jim finds himself transported from poverty and primitive living conditions to a pampered life in a modern home where a doting couple strives to satisfy his every whim, he is homesick. Even as he becomes accustomed to clean clothes and a daily bath, he still watches the mailbox, hoping for news from home. Within a short time, he is gaining weight and is spending most of his waking hours with his surrogate father, Anson Winters. Gradually, he learns why Anson Winters is so protective.
Several years prior to Jim’s arrival in Chinaberry, Anson had lost his wife Melba, who died in childbirth. This tragedy was followed by another devastating blow: the death of Johannes, Anson’s afflicted son who had died at the age of six despite his father’s heroic efforts to keep the boy alive. Gradually, Jim comes to understand that both he and Lurie are surrogates and that Anson intends to spend the rest of his life striving to protect his wife and “his new son” from real and imagined dangers. Of course, it is an impossible task.
The story of Anson Winters’ struggle to keep his loved ones from harm is heartrending. Especially affecting is the section that recounts the tortured father’s daily routine, riding with Johannes cradled in his arms and fresh diapers in his saddlebags. Repeatedly, when the ailing child has seizures and ceases to breath, Anson forces breath back into his lungs and revives him. When Johannes finally dies, Anson attempts suicide several times. Jim also discovers that there are locked rooms in the house which contain the belongings of Johannes and Melba — a kind of memorial to a dead wife and son. It becomes obvious that Anson’s attempt to “resurrect” his family are doomed to failure ... but then, life sometimes provides its own alternative ... which is what happens here.
However, as affecting as the story of Anson Winters is, Chinaberry’s greatest merit is James Still’s ability to capture the essence of a world that no longer exists. Jim’s trek from Chambers County, Ala., to Chinaberry, Texas, resonates with vital details. It is a different world — one where women “wear out like a cake of soap,” as they struggled with the common tasks of life. In Texas, Jim encounters washing machines powered by gasoline engines, marvels at the size of Texas jack rabbits and the fact that antelope often graze with the cattle. Jim ponders the immensity of a place that is “more sky than earth.”
Although he is plagued by the ubiquitous ticks and fleas (just like those in Alabama), he learns to treat his bites with Cloverine Salve. He adjusts to a humid world where everyone’s hands grasp fans as they eat and/or sit on their porches, and he becomes accustomed to telephones that utilize operators who live at home — and everyone listens to everyone else’s phone conversations. On summer nights, the people living in and near Chinaberry are troubled by cyclones and tornados. Summers bring epidemics of Rocky Mountain fever.
Although there is a tendency to comment on the “autobiographical content” in Chinaberry, there seems to be very little justification for that. James Still did not spend a summer in Texas when he was 13, although he did make a rapid trip there when he was in his 20’s. For readers like me who have always admired Still, I responded to this little novel as a kind of fantasy “with ticks and chiggers.” As numerous other Southern writers have noted, the story contained here “could have happened.” Jim’s journey has much to do with the way that James Still defined home. Is it a place or people? Perhaps it resides in the heart.
Shortly after James Still’s death in 2001, a number of his close friends began putting together some of the author’s unpublished works. Among his papers, they found the unpublished manuscript for Chinaberry. Another Kentucky writer, Silas House assumed responsibility for getting this work published.
Chinaberry by James Still. University of Kentucky Press, 2011. 153 pages
Back in 1987, a young West Virginia writer, Pinckney Benedict, published a highly lauded collection of short stories entitled Town Smokes. In some instances, the critical response was a bit excessive.
Benedict was hailed as a “new voice in Southern literature” who was destined to produce astonishing works. Joyce Carol Oates reviewed the collection for the New York Times and announced that the author had “exceptional gifts and promise.”
A few years later, Pinckney produced a second collection, The Wrecking Yard, which was also well received. However, the author’s first novel, The Dogs of God (1995) got mixed reviews with some critics expressing concern about Benedict’s penchant for surreal (and sometimes nightmarish) atmosphere.
Then came a troublesome silence. Except for an occasional short story or a critical essay in a few prestigious magazines, the man who had once been called the “new voice of the South” seems to have vanished down the hallowed halls of academia. (He is now a full professor of English in Southern Ohio University.)
During this time, Pinckney’s wife, Laura, received considerable praise for her novels (Isabella Moon, Calling Mr. Lonelyhearts, and her Surreal South series.)
What happened to Pinckney? What happened to the man who wrote such short story masterpieces as “The Sutton Pie Safe” and “Pit,” which are still anthologized in college textbooks?
Now, almost twenty years after The Dogs of God, comes Miracle Boy and Other Stories. Benedict has returned to the short story format of his early works, and this masterful collection demonstrates that the author still has “exceptional gifts and promise.” However, there is a vital difference. Whereas Pinckney’s early works could be characterized as “gothic” tales that pulsed with dark humor and were comparable to the best of Flannery O’Conner and Truman Capote, there is a disturbing shift in Miracle Boy and Other Stories.
Although Benedict’s characters still reside in the remote coves and abandoned farms of the Blue Ridge mountains, many of them have severed any ties that they once had with “the real world.”
There is a great deal of pain in these stories. Many of Pinckney’s protagonists occupy their own personal circle of hell ... frequently, a place filled with demons (real and imaginary) in which the natural laws of the universe are suspended.
Animals speak, the dead return and ancient gods move through the mountains of West Virginia. The maimed child in the title story has lost his feet to his father’s cane-cutting machine, but a team of surgeons have reattached them. Now his playmates torment him daily, demanding “to see the stitches.”
Many of the characters in Miracle Boy and Other Stories have undergone psychological and/or physical torments that renders reality untenable; consequently they create an alternative world. In “Joe Messenger is Dreaming,” the speaker creates a world in which he can perform heroic feats (a fall from 100,000 feet before he opens his parachute, for example, or the ability to move at will through time).
As the narrator of “Pony Car” tells marvelous stories about his Uncle Rawdy and his talking crow named Slow Joe Crow, the reader begins to realize that everyone in the story is dead — possibly including the narrator — as victims of a terrifying wreck resulting from a race between Uncle Rawdy’s ‘70 Dodge Challenger and a train.
“Mudmen” and “The Beginning of Sorrow” appear to be parodies of famous literary works (Kafka). “Mudmen” bears a distinct resemblance to the old Jewish legend of the Golem, a creature of mud that is sent into the world to avenge injustice. However, Benedict’s mud man has a wasp nest for a heart and is motivated to destroy “vermin” — a written order that is placed in his mouth by his creator.
Both the mudmen and Hark, the dog in “The Beginning of Sorrow,” envy their creators and devise plans to take their place; Athelstan, the narrator of “The Angel Trumpet” is the sole survivor of an accident (methane poisoning) that killed his entire family. Athelstan, who is guilt-ridden by his survival, ponders the fact that he has always been treated with a kind of diffident respect by the family.
He decides that he has survived so that he can memorialize his family by painting a gigantic mural on the walls of the manure pit (the place where his father and three brothers died). Athelstan’s inspiration comes from the ancient Lascaux Cave Paintings and the narrator intends to create his masterpiece while in a state of ecstasy induced by chewing the seed of the Trumpet Flower (Jimsen weed).
Arguably, the two most remarkable short stories in this collection are “The World, the Flesh and the Devil” and “Pig Helmet and the Wall of Life.”
The former, which deals with a downed aviator’s frantic attempts to evade a pack of feral dogs as he runs through the ruins of an abandoned leper colony acquires a frantic pace — especially when the action is described through the eyes of the leader of the dog pack.
“Pig Helmet and the Wall of Life” probably deserves to be read so that the reader can resolve the meaning of the title. Suffice it to say that Pig Helmet wears a helmet made from a wild boar. In addition, he is a veteran mercenary and contractor who has returned from Iraq to find work with law enforcement.
When a bail-jumper throws acid in Pig Hemet’s face, Pig Helmet’s mutilated features become even more grotesque. Despite the bizarre subject, this story is deeply moving — especially in the concluding scenes at the local carnival where motorcycle-riding preachers racing around “The Wall of Life.”
It has been some 15 years since we have had a major work from Pinckney Benedict. During that interval, his world view seems to have changed considerably. Where he was once whimsical and ironic, he is now surreal and dark.
I suspect that many will find some of the stories in this latest work to be offensive. Admittedly, this reviewer decided not to comment on several entries because they dealt with topics (the massacre of animals, for example) that are too painful to read about or discuss — at least for me. Despite these painful (and graphic) details, however, Pinckney Benedict remains a masterful writer. Anyone who doubts that should read “The World, the Flesh and the Devil.”
Miracle Boy and Other Stories by Pinckney Benedict. Press 53, 2010. 244 pages.
This remarkable book has two protagonists. One is a learned, sophisticated (and somewhat jaded) scholar who has decided to spend the summer in Florence, Italy, “reading Dante and Machiavelli and looking at Renaissance paintings.” However, his plans go awry when he discovers a collection of photographs in a small shop.
The subject is an Amazon Forest tribe, the Machiguengas, whose colorful, tragic history has always fascinated him. Indeed, our scholar knows a great deal about the Machiguengas, including their customs and religious beliefs. As he pours over the photographs, he is drawn to an indistinct figure in one picture ... a vague image of a man seated among the tribal members, gesturing and talking in a manner that suggests that he is speaking to an attentive audience — a storyteller.
However, what is most disconcerting to the scholar is the fact that he knows there is no such thing as a traditional storyteller among these Amazonian tribes ... and he has the distinct feeling that he recognizes the face of the speaker — an old college friend named Saul Zuratas, who is the second (and most significant) protagonist of this novel.
As the scholar reflects on his numerous conversations with Saul in college cafes and seminars, he recalls his friend’s somewhat bizarre physical appearance: Jewish features with a wild shock of red hair and a strawberry birthmark that covered half of his face. Although timid and self-effacing, Saul Zuratas was given to proclaiming a passionate concern for Peru’s Amazonian tribes and their endangered cultures. Zuratas spoke bitterly about the forces that were destroying the Machiguengas — Christian missionaries, colonialism and labor exploitation camps that had either eradicated tribes or reduced them to slum encampments filled with zombie-like inhabitants who had become totally dependent on the white invaders.
The combination of his physical appearance and his angry diatribes against missionaries who promoted a kind of “progress” that destroyed the Machiguengas frequently made Saul an object of ridicule at the college where he was nicknamed “Masquerita.” Upon graduation, he announced that he was abandoning both the Amazon and a prestigious fellowship in a research project that would have sent him to Paris to study. Instead, he tells his friends that he has decided to accompany his father to Israel.
As our scholar/narrator studies the photographs, he realizes that “Masquerita” must have developed a secret plan to join the Machiguengas in their migrations into the remote Amazon wilderness. Known as “the people who walk,” the Machiguengas never establish a permanent village since they believe such action either angers the gods or disturbs the fragile balance between man, plants and animals. This tradition of wandering aimlessly and trusting to luck for food and substance carries them deeper into the most remote regions of the Amazon where fantasy and reality often merge.
At this point, The Storyteller undergoes a radical change in narrative. Abruptly, we are reading an astonishing compilation of stories, fables, myths and legends — all tightly woven together in a kind of stream-of-consciousness pastiche that blends ancient “creation myths” with “trickster stories” of Native Americans, the Old Testament and the classic works of Kafka, Shakespeare and Greek tragedies. It is the voice of Saul Zuratas reciting creation myths, the origin of the universe and tales of death and redemption — all woven into a dark, flowing tapestry.
Many of the tales contain universal themes: the consequence of offending the natural world by violating taboos (the terrible fate of the hunter who killed the sacred deer) and the significance of rituals, talismans and dreams. Tales of unwitting victims who are cursed with afflictions merge with a story of a man who became a cockroach; animals sacrifice themselves to assure mankind’s survival.
The author of The Storyteller, Mario Vargas Llosa, has been an outspoken critic of the unrelenting exploitation of the Amazon rain forests. This novel proves to be an ideal vehicle for exploring his major thesis. Ironically, some of the most destructive forces in the Peruvian region are widely considered beneficial. These include Christian missionaries who translate the Bible into native languages and anthropologists who strive to replace tribal customs with modern technology. For Llosa, these loudly extolled “humanitarian efforts” are actually eradicating tribal traditions just as effectively as the mining and timber camps.
However, the most compelling message in The Storyteller concerns the significance of the oral tradition, and Man’s compulsion to tell enigmatic fables ... frequently as he sits with his family before a fire and surrounded by darkness. Llosa restores this ancient tradition to its rightful place in the very heart of mankind’s origins. Beyond the whimsical tales of talking animals and the moralistic platitude that teach lessons in virtue and courage, there is a darker narrative that defines the world as tribes like the Machiquengas experience it. Often, these stories deal with terror, unspeakable suffering and despair, but there is also redemption and renewal. Such stories are compelling and comforting because they describe the world that the listeners recognize.
The Storyteller alternates between the scholar’s cynical response to the misguided efforts of missionaries and anthropologists and Saul Zuratas’ mystical tales for the “tribe who walks.” Who is most effective, then? Llosa obviously feels that in the modern world where change and progress are inevitable, the Machiquengas should be left alone with only their fragmented customs and traditions for comfort.
Since it was written over 25 years ago, The Storyteller has become a classic and is required reading for most anthropology students in the universities of the United States and South America. Filled with provocative ideas and opinions, it remains a popular (and controversial) chronicle of the continuing devastations in the Amazonian rainforests.
The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa. Penguin Books, 2001. 246 pages.
Well, kind hearts, as they used to say back in the Jazz Age, this one is “the bee’s knees.” Set in the roaring 1920’s, Ron Hansen’s new novel is based on the sensational 1927 murder trial and execution of Ruth Snyder and her weak-kneed accomplice, Judd Gray. Viewed from the jaded present age where we have become accustomed to media coverage of serial killers, bizarre mutilations and the over-hyped details of the Casey Anthony murder trial (which is still dominating the news), the details of this crime by two inept, foolish lovers seems sordid ... but unremarkable. Yet, there is something here that caught the morbid attention of America in what became known as “The Trial of the Century.” What was it?
In addition to turning the courtroom trial into a media circus that dominated newspaper headlines for six months, New York’s Queens County drew an audience of thousands that packed the courtroom, the halls and the surrounding grounds and streets. Celebrities managed to acquire seating up close to the action. New York Gov. Al Smith; the Rev. Billy Sunday; evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson; historian Will Durant, comedian Jimmy Durante; director D. W. Griffith; songwriter Irving Berlin; columnist Fannie Hurst; and playwright Damon Runyon came each day - all eager to share their opinions and moral judgments in paid interviews with the media. Aimee preached a stirring sermon about “sex love” and “red-hot cuties.” Noted playwright Willard Mack noted that, as theater, the trial lacked direction. “The plot was weak and most of the participants were stupid.” However, each performance was standing room only.
And share them, they did. Each day, for the duration of this amazing trial, writers, gossip columnists, early advocates of Freudian psychology and even politicians and comedians made daily comments about how the Ruth Snyder affair was a lurid fable about the dangers of the New York lifestyle. As the testimony shifted from prosecution to defense, Ruth and Judd found themselves described first as tragic victims of a doomed passion and then as coarse and shallow alcoholics who were motivated totally by greed (Ruth had secretly taken out a $95,000 insurance policy on her husband, Albert’s life.)
When the sordid details of their “love nest” were revealed — a lavish room at the Waldorf-Astoria where this carnally imaginative couple conducted a year-long tryst — the moral pundits of New York were finally shocked. Drunken orgies complete with bootleg whiskey and room-service banquets ... and all of it recorded in Ruth’s diary, a document so lewd and explicit with sexual details that the court finally ruled against allowing it to be read in court.
After Ruth Synder turned against Judd Gray, testifying that she had been a reluctant participant in Albert’s death (bludgeoned to death in his bed with a window sash), the media coverage gradually became vicious. Judd was no longer described as “a debonair, educated distributor of women’s lingerie” but as “a weazened little corset salesman.” Ruth was no longer extolled as a “wowser” with “China-blue eyes crackling sparks,” but as a “blond fiend, a vampire” and a “spider woman” who had revealed herself to be “a shallow-brained pleasure seeker who is accustomed to unlimited self-indulgence.” Finally, when Ruth’s diary revealed that she had attempted to murder her husband a half-dozen times before she finally solicited Judd’s reluctant assistance, the last vestiges of sympathy vanished. The jury was out less than 90 minutes.
Reduced to its basics, the Ruth Snyder/Judd Gray murder trial has a tawdry simplicity. There are no heroes or heroines in this triangle. Ruth, unhappily married to a moderately successful magazine editor, suffered from neglect and physical abuse. Treated with public contempt by her husband, she attempted to fill in the vacuums in her life with a frenzied self-indulgent life style. Broadway shows, beach parties, shopping binges with her 9-year-old daughter ... and flirting with every “beach sheik” in sight.
Judd Gray’s life seems a duplicate of Ruth’s. Unhappily married but a devout parent to his indifferent daughter, Gray is reputed to be a successful salesman with a genuine love of music and the arts. Unfortunately, he is a seasoned alcoholic, who, according to his own admission, never falls asleep at night, but “passes out.” In the morning, he does not wake up, but merely “regains consciousness” to continue to drinking.
From their first encounter, this “jazz couple” seem to be hopelessly drawn to each other; their wild roller coaster affair is an exhilarating rush to destruction. Yet, they are a product of their time. Ruth quips like Mae West, an actress she admires: “Better to be looked over than overlooked,” she says when sees admiring males looking her over. She sings Irving Berlin songs, peroxides her hair a vivid blonde and knows all the current dances. She is, after all, “a real jazz baby.” Judd quotes the classics, attends the theater, affectionately refers to Ruth as “Momsie,” and ponders the moral issues explicit in D. W. Griffith’s movie, “An American Tragedy” (which concerns a murder that has some remarkable parallels to poor Albert Snyder’s demise).
As for Albert Snyder, it would be difficult to find a less sympathetic victim. Arrogant, self-indulgent and given to episodes of surliness and bad temper, he had few friends. Although an enthusiastic party-goer, he frequently insulted his peers and had a reputation for picking fights. Ironically, the autopsy performed on Albert revealed that he was suffering from alcoholic poisoning and if Ruth and Judd had not succeeded in beating his brains out with a window sash, he may have died that night from the effects of bootleg whiskey.
In reviewing the case, many legal pundits conclude that this was “a murder by clowns,” carried out by an almost child-like ineptitude. Certainly, the trial was badly handled by the defense. Given the fact that there was a plentiful supply of black-hearted villains and gory Capone-era slaughters, the public’s passionate demand for the death of these two poor sinners seems excessive. Why? Hundreds of worse killers have walked away, or ended up with a life sentence. Why execute Ruth and Judd?
Perhaps their mistake was candor. Ruth’s diary treated both the murder and the erotic details of their love affair with a kind of joyful zest and abandon. Certainly, the secret pleasures they enjoyed were not unknown in New York’s decade of decadence, but perhaps what was unforgivable was to record everything with such enthusiasm and frankness. Ruth seemed to glory in carnal details; poor Judd was devastated by guilt, which meant that he enjoyed the experience even more.
Ruth and Judd did not die well. A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion concludes with a harrowing account of the executions. Ruth approached the electric chair with fear and trembling, and had to be forced to sit. A few moments later Judd Gray managed to walk under his own power and take his place. Both suffered embarrassment regarding their coarse prison garments and the tonsure-shaved circles on their heads. Following their execution, the burned and blistered bodies of the two lovers were placed on storage shelves awaiting burial ... their nerveless hands, scant inches from each other.
A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen. Scribner, 2011. 256 pages.
Jo Nesbo’s protagonist, Inspector Harry Hole, is a daunting piece of work. A chain-smoking manic depressive and an alcoholic, Harry’s job security is tenuous. In fact, several administrators are eager to fire the hulking, short-tempered Hole. Refusing to observe office hours and openly displaying contempt for his “superiors,” Harry’s presence rankles everyone, including most of the women in his life. The only factor in his favor is the fact that he has repeatedly demonstrated that he is the department’s most efficient employee. Time and time again, he identifies and pursues murderers like some mythical fury, following culprits into other countries (Australia, South America, etc.). As a result, Harry Hole has become something of a legend (and a pariah) in the Oslo police department.
This time out, Harry is matching wits with a serial killer who marks murder sites with a snowman. His victims — usually women, but with one notable exception — are dispatched in a Grand Guignol style that litters the landscape with body parts that are sometimes “rearranged” and/or reconstructed (in a manner similar to the victims of serial killers on the American TV show, “Dexter”). Inspector Hole suspects that there is a common theme that ties all of the murders together. When he begins to delve into the private lives of the victims, he discovers a disturbing common feature: infidelity. In addition, DNA testing reveals that all had given birth to children who had been “fathered” by someone other than the victim’s husband. Repeatedly, the Snowman sends a message to each proposed victim: “You are going to die because you are a whore.”
Eventually, Harry discovers that the murder victims have been marked by something much more serious than mere infidelity. Since statistical data indicates that 20 perent of Norway’s children owe their existence to men other than those identified as their “legal fathers,” Hole searches for and finds a more disturbing factor. In spite of numerous false leads, he finally learns of a mysterious medical center called the Marienlyst Clinic where patients are treated for an obscure hereditary disease called Fahr’s Syndrome. Infected genes, passed form a “carrier male” are dormant for a time, but eventually, they spread through their hapless victims, destroying their motor skills by a kind of calcification that renders the bones and facial features misshapen and grotesque.
Suddenly, Harry is faced with a disquieting possibility. Is it possible that the Snowman is a victim of Fahr’s Syndrome? Is he systematically eliminating all of the women who have become unwitting carriers of the disease? When DNA proves that all of the infected victims were fathered by the same (unknown) male, Harry begins to speculate. Does this “carrier” heedlessly pass the infection on to numerous unsuspecting victims or does he know what he is doing?
Snowman is populated by the usual inept, foolish and arrogant members of the Oslo Police Department; however, Harry is destined to encounter an impressive number of “unusual” characters ranging from the vain and egotistical to the obsessed, psychotic and paranoid. Among the most interesting are: Arve Stop, the editor of a controversial magazine appropriately called “Liberal.” Arve is also a popular talk show guest and celebrity who, according to rumors, has a compulsion to seduce every attractive woman that crosses his path (sometimes several in a single day). Stop often selects his “overnight guests” from studio audiences and parties. Then, there is Idar Vetlesen, a gifted plastic surgeon who has “redesigned” the features of some of Norway’s most famous citizens. In addition to his profitable surgery, Idar frequents a local hotel that is a hangout for prostitutes and sexually abused children. (Adar also claims to be an authority on Fahr’s Syndrome). Another provocative member of the medical profession is Mathis Lund-Helgesen. As a child, he was called “Mathis No Nips” due to the fact that he was born without nipples. As luck would have it, Mathis intends to marry Rakel Fauke, Harry’s old flame (Yes, Rakel has finally had enough of Harry’s drinking and brooding). Finally, there is Katrine Bratt, recently of the Bergen Crime Squad who has been reassigned to Harry Hole’s department. Harry soon discovers that Katrine is both capable and unstable. There is something dark and sinister in her past and Harry suspects that Katrine has “her own agenda.”
At some point in Snowman, each of these four characters (Stop, Vetiesen, Mathis and Kathrine) are suspects (Yes, one of them is the Snowman). Part of the mystery surrounding the serial killer’s identity involves the disappearance of a corrupt, disgraced Bergen policeman, Gert “Iron” Rafto. In fact, Rafto’s reputation for brutality had made him a suspect in the Snowman murders — a solution that was abandoned when Rafto disappeared and the murders continued. When Rafto’s body is finally discovered (the only male Snowman victim), Harry blundered on a disquieting theory. If Harry is Oslo’s most capable policeman ... and if Rafto was Burgen’s most efficient investigator .... could this mean that the Snowman knows that he will never be caught if he can simply eliminate investigators who have the reputation of being the best?
Snowman contains the usual Jo Nesbo signatures: tension and horror wrapped in a marvelous collection of arcane facts. For example, Harry ponders the fact that the female Berhaus seal will not mate with the same male twice — a dilemma that prompts the male to kill her rather than give her up. The reader also learns that Harry is a devoted follower of American culture and often delivers passionate diatribes on American politics (he is critical of the Bush administration), pop music (Harry collects Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen) and American film (Harry thinks that “Starship Troopers” is a satirical attack on American culture.
However, despite the fact that Snowman is one of Nesbo’s best thrillers, a kind of anxiety dominates the action. Although Harry Hole remains a dark and paranoid anti-hero, he seems to be suffering from an number of ailments. Everyone comments on his “loss of weight,” and Harry now has the added inconvenience of having his apartment contaminated with mold. In spite of his insomnia, Harry soldiers on, armed only with a carton of cigarettes and a stock of Jim Beam. Certainly, by the time he emerges from the riveting conclusion of Snowman, he is battered and exhausted. Hopefully, it will take more than a mold infection and the loss of a finger or two to send him out to pasture.
Snowman by Joe Nesbo. Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. 384 pages.