Gary Carden

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Readers, be forewarned. If you willingly enter the fanciful world of George R. R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire: A Game of Thrones, you may find yourself “enchanted” like some hapless knight in Arthurian legend. In other words, you will spend a significant part of your life, wandering enthralled through dark forests, frozen wastes and burning deserts — all inhabited by extraordinary creatures, mad kings and a host of doomed and deeply flawed characters, all vying for your attention. Can you afford the investment of time?

Dropping into the continent of Westros with its unstable weather, exotic flora and fauna and the medieval splendor of a land wrecked by seven warring kingdoms resembles being transported to an alien planet. Indeed, that may be the case since it quickly becomes obvious that Westros is not our Earth. Strange flowers bloom in well-tended gardens; terrifying creatures called direwolves and shadow cats move in the dark forest; and a mythical races, called the white-walkers and the “Others,” live in the vast darkness beyond a 600-foot-high wall of ice to the north.

Yet, this strange land has familiar qualities. The peasants spend considerable time in taverns, drinking beer and consuming soups that contain commonplace vegetables like cabbage, okra, pumpkin and tomatoes. The nobility drink rare wines and feast on steak and venison much like the royal courts of France and England during medieval times. In effect, this exotic world blends the pageantry of a 15th century court; the sultry eroticism of Arabian Nights and the ancient, pre-Arthurian mythology of the Mabinogion with a marvelous wrapping of magic and fantasy — all woven into a unique, blood-stained tapestry. In other words, Songs of Ice and Fire is the folklore and ancient tales of Planet Earth “enhanced” by George R. R. Martin’s imagination.

Like the ancient tales of England and Scotland, Westros contains the ruins of an ancient civilization called the “Age of Heroes.” However, the broken columns and abandoned cities of Westros are thousands of years old and the old myths speak of fanciful creatures: children of the forest, the walking dead and dragons who blended their blood with that of ancient kings. In addition, ominous and prophetic tales talk of the coming of a hundred-year winter which will destroy most of the world. In the kingdom of Winterfell, an oft-repeated mantra is “Winter is Coming.” When animals and people begin to migrate south and half-mythical birds called “snow snipes” appear in growing numbers, the kingdoms of Westros begin to hoard supplies and watch the sky with anxiety.

This sense of impending doom serves as a backdrop for a half-dozen plots, each of which has the complexity of a Shakespearean tragedy. The governing House of Stark in Winterfell (a northern city) has strong traditional ties with the House of Baratheon located in the southern city, Kings Landing. In addition, Lord Eddard Stark, acquires the title, “The King’s Hand,” which empowers him to act on behalf of King Richard Baratheon. Since the King has a weakness for hunting, drinking and sleeping with whores, Eddard spends much of his time in King’s Landing conducting “affairs of state” and council meetings. During this period, Eddard learns that Queen Cersei (House Lannister) is involved in a secret plot to make the heirs to the throne her children, who are all products of an incestuous affair with her brother Jaime Lannister.

Gradually, Eddard learns that King Baratheon’s court is totally corrupt and the plotting and intrigue extends to all of the Seven Kingdoms — all of which have governing families that have their own agendas. Before Eddard can alert King Richard of his wife’s plot, he finds himself imprisoned and branded a traitor to the throne. Among other ill-fated members of the Stark family are Eddard’s wife, Lady Catelyn (House Tully) and the entire family.

In time, the intricate web of treachery and deceit brings ruin and/or imprisonment to most of the Starks: The two daughters, Sansa and Arya, are trapped in King’s Landing. (Sansa is betrowed to the vicious and unstable Prince Joffrey). Seven-year-old Brandon stumbles on the incestuous Queen and her brother and is thrown from a lofty bedroom window — a fall that leaves him paralyzed and suffering from amnesia.

When 14-year-old Robb learns that his father has been declared a traitor, he raises an army and with Lady Catelyn’s assistance marches on King’s Landing. Eddward’s illegitimate son, Jon Snow abandons Winterfell and joins the Black Brothers, an army of highly disciplined soldiers who are sworn to defend Winterfell against the forces of evil that live beyond the northern Wall. As the Starks struggle to survive in the cauldron of intrigue, other kingdoms begin to take actions that are designed to destroy or sustain Winterfell and King’s Landing.  Each decisive action (assassinations, covert invasions, secret treaties) resemble a deadly chess game.

No review of A Game of Thrones would be complete without the mention of Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf who is called “The Imp,” and the exotic Princess Daenerys and her brother, Viserys, who claim to be descendants of the ancient House Targaryens called themselves “Blood of the Dragon.” Among the cast of characters, Tyrion is the ultimate outsider — a man who compensates for his physical deformities by his wit and a shrewd ability to understand the motives of others, especially his arrogant and treacherous brother, Jamie. However, Princess Daenerys harbors a secret desire for vengeance which involves “waking the dragons” and marching on kingdoms of Winterfell and King’s Landing ... her ancient enemies.

These complexities of plot may be this bloody saga’s most bewildering characteristic. Readers may find themselves re-reading chapters in order to keep track of kingdoms and blood feuds. However, George R. R. Martin’s powerful and beautifully crafted narrative holds our attention. While it may be difficult to summarize the tangled threads of intrigue which involve several hundred characters, this fantasy shimmers with memorable scenes and characters. For example, the presence of the dire-wolves, six pups raised by the Stark children, acquire an eerie presence as they pad silently behind their charges, guarding them against ever-present threat. The descriptions of feasts, jousts, warfare, and a good bit of sweaty sex is done with graphic detail.  The painfully detailed descriptions of clothing and armor is especially noteworthy.

A Game of Thrones has a number of strong themes that focus on women in crisis; the presence of a religion thought to be destroyed, but which still exists in the natural world where “the old gods and the new” are dormant, but vitally alive.

A final comment on the HBO series based on Game of Thrones. It is magnificent. Perfectly cast and stunningly photographed, this series is undoubtedly the best program on current television.  As for that oft-repeated concern, “Is it as good as the book?”.... Yes, it is. In fact, in some instances, it surpasses the book. And this is just the beginning! There are eight books to go.

(Gary Carden can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

A Game of Thrones, Book One by George R. R. Martin. Bantam Books, 1997. 726 pages.

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Like a growing number of FX addicts, I have become a devoted fan of “Justified” (Timothy Olyphant and Sylva’s own Nick Searcy) that airs each Tuesday night at 10 p.m. This fast-moving, smart-talking, funny and violent show represents the culmination (or harmonious convergence) of several remarkable talents: a short story entitled “Fire in the Hole” by Elmore Leonard (which became the basis for the FX series, “Justified”) and the marvelous nuanced acting of Oliphant, who stepped into the custom-made boots of U. S. Marshall Raylan Givens like he was born to play this part.

“Justified” is that rare thing, the merging of Elmore Leonard’s talent for writing dialogue that sizzles and pops like frying bacon, and Olyphant’s uncanny talent for becoming a Kentucky-bred Federal agent who has acquired a reputation for being a little too quick to provoke “violent confrontations.”

Raylan is that rare thing, a novel spawned by a successful television show that is based on an original short story by the same author. Of course, most readers know about this “crime/fiction” writer who has a legendary talent for writing screenplays: Consider this partial list: Valdez is Coming; Hombre; The Moonshine Wars; The Bounty Hunters; Gold Coast; Kill Shot. Leonard’s versatility is astonishing. Frequently, his dialogue is filled with double entendres and “inside jokes”.... like when a character in an episode of of “Justified” picks up the phone during a tension-filled moments, hangs up and turns to tell a crowd of well-armed listeners, “Valdez is Coming.”

Essentially, Elmore Leonard is so pleased with the success of “Justified,” he has decided to write a new novel based on the further adventures of U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens. Raylan vibrates with energy, humor and tension. Take for example the episode that begins with Raylan discovering Angel Arena, a major drug dealer, floating in a hotel bathtub filled with blood, water and ice. Angel’s kidney’s have been removed and someone has closed the incision with a stapler.

Angel survives and the following day, he receives a ransom note that offers to return his kidney’s for $100,000. Before long, Raylan is caught up in one of the most bizarre cases of his career and the personalities are memorable: Dickie and Coover Crowe, two pot-head brothers (and old acquaintances of Raylan’s) who act as “procurers” for an Afro-American nurse named Layla and her con-artist lover, Cuba (pronounced Coo-ba) Franks. Since Layla has “assisted” in hundreds of kidney transplants at Harlan County’s stylish medical center, she is admirably qualified to remove the kidneys of wealthy victims. Coba and Layla are well on their way to becoming millionaires when Raylan shows up and the plot becomes both complicated and kinky.

Then there is Delroy Lewis, a drug-dealing gambler who has developed a profitable business involving topless dancers. The girls are all addicts who have been trained to rob banks and deliver the stolen funds to Delroy. The money rolls in and when any of the dancers become incompetent, Delroy simply shoots them and leaves their bodies in a vacant lot. They are easy to replace.

Ah, but there is one problem. Delroy has a serious grudge against Raylan Givens and fantasizes about engaging in a western style shootout. Since Delroy has a penchant for cross-dressing, he decides to set a trap in a gambling saloon where he will be disguised as a “statuesque beauty with a platinum wig” with a Smith .357 in his purse. The resulting “gunfight” manages to be tense, terrifying and hilarious.

Raylan is packed with characters that are vitally alive and some of them have become regulars on “Justified.” There is Boyd Crowder, a reluctant employee at the M-T Mining Company which is in the process of destroying the quality of life in Harlan County. As “security officer” for the mining company, Boyd has discovered that his duties include intimidation, bribery and accessory to murder. Carol Conlan, a brutal coal mine executive who has turned into a “Justified” regular, finally gets her due in Harlan when she is shotgunned by a miner’s widow in the local nursing home.

Of course, there is a priceless episode involed in Carol’s demise, but that is possibly this novel’s singular flaw. It possesses an intricate and tangled narrative with events so intertwined, it is nearly impossible to unravel one tale without releasing a half-dozen others. In order to put Carol Conlan’s personality and death in proper perspective, it is necessary to tell the story of Otis Culpepper, the old miner who has become an “inconvenience” to the M-T Mining Company — a problem that Conlan solved by simply shooting the old man. In addition, there is the story of Pervis Crowe, a rugged, old survivalist who sells and/or controls every illegal activity in Harlan County. In addition, there are a dozen marvelous characters who make a brief appearance and then vanish through the nearest exit .... like Jackie Nevada, a college girl/professional gambler who impresses Raylan by winning a million dollars.

Finally, Raylan acquires a pardner in this novel and hopefully, he is going to be around for a long time. He is a former white supremacist with swastika tats named Bill Nichols. Somewhere in his experiments with violence, Bill “saw the light” and became an uncompromising agent for justice.  Raylan and Bill look and act like a matched set, and hopefully he will return often, giving us some fantastic dialogue as these two U. S. Marshalls compare notes on topics like divorce, moonshine, young women and killing people.

Raylan by Elmore Leonard. HarperCollins, 2012. 263 pages.

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I remember, I remember

The house where I was born,

The little window where the sun

Came peeping in at morn;

He never came a wink too soon

Nor brought too long a day;

But now, I often wish the night

Had borne my breath away.

—Thomas Hood

 

This novel significantly affected this reviewer simply because I gradually developed a tremendous empathy with the protagonist, a woman who is close to the end of her life and spends much of her time “summing up.”

Could she have done better? Now, alone except for her aging dog, Rufus, she sits staring through her living room window, watching the familiar contours of her neighborhood vanish beneath the attack of the municipal bulldozers and jack hammers. The construction of a new water/sewer system has rendered her beloved neighborhood unrecognizable, filling the air with noise and dust.

All of her old friends are either dead or moved away and her life has been reduced to boring routines: washing the dishes, paying the bills, checking the mail. Emily needs a change.

When  Arlene, her best (and only) friend keels over at the Eat ‘n Park, “two for one” breakfast buffet, Emily’s life becomes even more constricted.

Having become dependent on Arlene to drive her to the library, the grocery store and church, Emily is now forced to rely on taxis — an alternative that she soon abandons as both frustrating and expensive. Visiting Arlene in the hospital, Emily is relieved to learn that her friend had merely fainted because of low blood sugar (although she now has some dramatic stitches on her forehead).

Emily ponders her predicament. Arlene’s poor vision makes her a dangerous driver; also Emily finds that there are places that she wants to go alone: her husband’s grave, for example. Against the advice of family and friends, she buys a new car (a Subaru) and ventures out into the world again. 

Although Emily, Alone is essentially a warm, and often humorous account of an elderly woman’s rational acceptance of her own mortality, Emily’s daily life has occasional moments that are heartbreaking and poignant. Certainly, she finds much to enjoy in life: the classical music station on her radio that continues to play her favorite Bach and Vivaldi; her garden and the annual return of flowers which she tends with a zealot’s devotion.

Then, there are the gratifying annual events: the spring flower show which she and Arlene attend each year; the museum, and a Van Goth exhibit; the new symphonic season with a Mozart program.

However, in counterpoint to this annual ritual, there are the “family events” — Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners; the yearly trip to a cabin called “Chautauqua” and the visits of children and grandchildren. All of these events are fraught with frustration and disappointments, such as an alienated daughter with a drinking problem; sons who seem reluctant to return home since they are married and have conflicting obligations...and the grandchildren who are bored by the whole affair.

Beneath it all runs Emily’s rueful acceptance that each event may be “the last time” she will see the people that she loves.

There is also this. As the seasons change, as winter gives way to spring (“This may be the last spring” thinks Emily), a goodly portion of Emily’s thoughts are colored by guilt, regret and anxiety. She remembers the thoughtless and cruel comments that she made to her own mother and finds contained in her own daughter’s arrogant and bitter pronouncements the same anger that had once been her own.

Like all mothers who find themselves alone, there are days when Emily has little to do except revisit old grievances and imagined slights from her family. The receiving and sending of Christmas cards becomes a daunting activity in which Emily equates a late (or never sent) card as indicative of a relative’s indifference.

Funerals of old friends acquire profound significance in terms of flowers, musical selections and seating. Emily carefully plans her own service. The writing of her will and the distribution of her estate becomes a topic for discussion with her children, who (thinks Emily) respond with indifference. Like most mothers, Emily suffers all of these imagined insults with stoic silence....until she is safely at home.

No doubt, many readers will find Emily to be an all-too-familiar figure, but they are also likely to admire her, as she drives her new car to destinations she had once thought beyond her reach. Her relationship with the delightful Rusty, her decrepit dog, is both tender and comical, since Emily keeps up a colorful monologue directed at the failing canine, filled with comical nick-names.

He is Doo-fus when he is awkward and Tubby when he gains weight. His owner worries that she may out live him, but dotes on him as though he were her child. She sympathizes with him regarding his bouts of flatulence, but admits that she has similar failings herself. Each day, when a rogue squirrel comes to raid the bird feeder, Emily opens the back door and urges Rusty to attack. “Sic ‘em, Rusty.” The squirrel is gone before Rusty gets to the feeder, but Emily always assures him, “You almost got him, that time!”

Her relationship with her “once-each-week” housekeeper, Betty, is often comical as they compare notes on food, relatives, dieting and politics. However, the best exchanges are between Emily and Arlene, who are two old friends that are totally mismatched. Arlene is a retired teacher, who loves soap operas and often distresses Emily with her love of pop music and bad art. Yet the two are devoted and familiar figures in their town, dining weekly at the Eat ‘n Park and shopping for blueberry muffins at Giant Eagle. Regardless of who is the chauffeur, they attend church, funerals and art shows together.

As Emily enjoys her new car, she seems to be gathering nerve for “a long drive.” In time, we learn that the destination is Emily’s hometown, Kersey, Penn., a place she had once vowed she would never see again. Perhaps it is the “summing up” of her life that prompts Emily to finally pack a pair of cosmos (potted flowers) into the Subaru and set out for a backwater town and an old cemetery where she will spend hours digging the dry baked dirt at her parent’s tombstones. It was something that needed to be done.

Perhaps it is only with this final act of acknowledging her origins, that Emily can return home to sit quietly in a window above her garden, with a glass of wine and the music of Albinoni and Vivaldi playing softly. Her obligations and duties have all been fulfilled now. Nothing to do now but wait.

Emily, Alone by Stewart O’nan. Penguin Books, 2011. 255 pages.

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To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.

— “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake

 

The stanza above, from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” serves as an apt introduction to Robert Morgan’s latest collection of poetry. Here, the reader will find a catalog of vivid images from the natural world: a spider’s web spangled with dew drops; mountain pools pierced by sun beams; a wind-blown thistle and the husk of a jar fly — all transformed by Morgan’s elegant words — words which have the power to render these images “numinous” (possessing a religious or spiritual quality).

In conjunction with Morgan’s skill in capturing vibrant images is his ability to describe those images with magical language. For example, the title of this collection, Terroir, is a word (French in origin) used to denote the special characteristics that geography, geology and climate bestow upon crops and/or produce. Just as the quality of a vintage wine may be determined by the combined effects of a particular region’s rivers, the mineral content of the soil and the length of the growing season, Morgan suggests a parallel in the natural world of Appalachia. In effect, the inhabitants of the coves and ridges of the Southern Highlands are what they are because of the same factors. We (and all living things) are molded and shaped by the same forces that might render/produce something original ... a rare wine with its unique taste or a mountain family, surviving against all odds and steeped in tradition.

Terroir contains a number of recurring themes: rituals, folk beliefs, superstitions and the subtle and orderly design of the natural world.

“October Crossing” celebrates the annual orange and black, woolly worm migration which, in mountain folklore will determine how hard the winter will be. However, in Morgan’s imaginative description, this events merges with classical mythology. The woolly worms migration must cross a highway “like a hard Styx or Jordan” to reach the refuge of the woods. In “Apple Howling,” there is a comparison of the Anglo-Saxon “come forth” ritual in apple orchards (beseeching the trees to produce a generous crop), to the “come, butter, come” incantations that my own grandmother chanted to transform clabbered milk to butter. “Singing to the Corn” recounts yet another ritual to encourage fertility and “Immune” celebrates an old superstition about going barefoot in the first snowfall as a means of preventing winter ailments.

Beneath all of these poems, like a quiet, but ever-present stream, is a series of affirmative verses regarding Nature’s “silent design.” “Loaves and Fishes” celebrates the slow decay of a deer on the highway, noting the process by which every bit of flesh  “is sorted, hauled/ away by scavenging coyotes,/ by maggots, worms, bacteria, /each bite sent to its proper place/ to feed the needy multitudes.” “Translation” finds a striking example of rebirth in the way that trees die “and lean into the arms/ of neighbors” where they gradually disintegrate and “... eed the the roots/ of soaring youth.”

There are also frequent allusions to Nature’s tendency to “mimic” cosmic design. For example, the sprouts of potatoes struggling toward the light in “Homesickness” resembles genetic memory struggling “across the gulf of history.” In another poem, In “Country of the Sun,” Morgan finds a poignant parallel in the struggles of a neighbor stricken with an eye cancer who moves down a road in the sunlight of a spring day with the same yearning towards the light. In “The Big One,” the explosion of seeds from a winter thistle resembles that outward rush of matter that created the universe. Again, in “Lone Eagle,” the fall of snow flakes in a pine forest suggests “a ticker tape parade” witnessed by “snow bird, mouse and solo wren.” The spiraling flight of sulfur butterflies in “Convocation,” suggest the “swing and rise” of planets and “far quasar.” 

Many of Morgan’s most affecting poems describe an embattled natural world where corrupting forces contaminate beauty. “Brownfield” describes a field filled with “industrial swill,” tatters of asbestos and rusting nails, styrofoam, grease and garbage bags; yet even here, Nature struggles stubbornly to reassert itself with a thriving patch of ironweed. In “Expulsion” Morgan compares humanity’s withdrawal from polluted tracts of land to the loss of Eden. We are forced to leave because our eyes are “swollen red” by a corrupting dust. Yet, even here, the stubborn persistence of “Poison Oak” demonstrates Nature’s survival instinct “that will cross a meadow” to claim a spot at the base of a tree.

My favorite poem in this collection is “Go Gentle,” a reasoned rebuff to the poet, Dylan Thomas who is remembered for his advice to the elderly: “rage against the dying of the light.” For Morgan, such a recommendation seems a bit melodramaic. After witnessing the death of relatives and friends, Morgan concludes that both those who watch and those who die “will plead for nothing but the right/ and gentle passage of the night.” There seems little point in delivering a death rant.

This is a gratifying collection.  Although Robert Morgan is attracting national attention for his novels and historic biographies, I feel that his greatest strength lies in his poetry.

Terroir by Robert Morgan. Penguin Books, 2011. 95 pages.

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This novel contains an endorsement from the late William Gay that tweaked my interest. I immediately bought the book. Gay says, “The Devil All the Time hits you like a telegram from Hell slid under your door at three o’clock in the morning.” Another review concluded that reading Pollock’s novel was like “reading Flannery O”Conner without the Catholicism.” What we have here, then, is the existential landscape of the “Southern Gothic” joined with the mindless brutality of “Natural Born Killers.” If you are a reader who looks for novels that are spiritually uplifting and are designed to reflect hope and redemptive themes, then you should avoid The Devil All the Time as if its pages were impregnated with the Ebola virus.

Pollock’s characters are often terrifying; other times, they possess a pathetic innocence ... the kind that renders them hapless victims. Here are some of his most arresting and memorable characters: The duo, Brother Roy Lafferty and Brother Theodore Daniels, spread the word of God in the Coal Creek Holiness Church Sanctified in Meade, Ohio (circa l950s). The Rev. Roy keeps the attention of his audience by throwing handfuls of poisonous spiders into the congregation.  Brother Theodore, confined to a wheelchair since he swallowed a dose of strychnine in one of the Rev’s Roy’s revivals, plays the guitar. Alarmed by a steady decrease in his congregation, the Rev. Roy decides to promote himself with a miracle ... raising the dead. Brother Theodore suggests that Roy should kill his new wife and “bring her back.” The Rev. Roy does just that ... or tries. The religious duo buries the dead girl and depart ... allegedly for Mexico.

Willard Russell, a psychologically scarred WWII veteran, returns to Meade after the war, marries and struggles to make a life for his wife and son, Arvin. When his wife gets cancer, Willard launches an impassioned appeal to God to save his wife. At first he conducts marathon praying sessions at a “prayer log” in the woods, but gradually he begins to bring sacrifices to the prayer log — rabbits, squirrels, butchered hunting dogs ... all of which he hangs on wooden crosses or from the branches of trees. When his wife’s condition grows worse, he decides to bring a human sacrifice to his prayer log and murders his landlord, an unpleasant, greedy lawyer (who has offered to give Willard his rented shack if Willard will kill the lawyer’s unfaithful wife and her lover).

When his wife dies, the distraught Willard decides to make the ultimate sacrifice, cuts his own throat and leaves behind a 9-year-old, Arvin, who becomes the central character in The Devil All the Time. When Arvin leads the local sheriff, Lee Bodecker, to the prayer log and his father’s body, the bewildered law officer stares at the decaying sacrifices hanging in the trees and asks the boy, “What the hell is this?”

“A prayer log,” says Arvin, “but it don’t work.”

Then there are Carl and Sandy, a grotesque couple who have a secret life as “self-styled serial murderers.” On weekends, they troll the side roads of surrounding states, looking for “models” ... young hitchhikers. Sandy is the “bait,” who seduces the young men; Carl is the photographer who records the encounter and then tortures and murders the victims. For Carl, all of this is controlled by some spiritual and/or religious force that directs him to his victims by secret signs and clues. During the week, the couple operates a tavern in Meade where Sandy’s brother is Sheriff Bodecker.

At this point, approximately one-third of the way into this surreal and hypnotic novel, when the narrative is acquiring the rocking speed of a souped-up roadster with a gutted muffler, it’s time to cease revealing the action and make a few observations on this novel’s merits. Instead of launching an all-out attack on the “shameful depiction of Southern degeneracy,” I feel constrained to note that this is a brilliant novel. In some ways it is similar to the cult film, “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” by Andrew Douglas, which presents the rural South as a place in which “Christ, mysticism, superstition and the yin-yang forces of the sacred and the profane combine, creating a delicate blend of the real and the unreal, the known and the unknown.”

For those who live in the rural south, especially in the impoverished and remote areas, there are only two choices. “Choose Jesus or choose hell.” Readers who are familiar with the geography will readily recognize Meade, Ohio, since it has hundreds of clones. “A little paper mill town ... that smelled like rotten eggs. Strangers complained about the stench, but the locals like to brag about the sweet smell of money.” As Pollock catalogs Meade’s recreational opportunities, which seem to be limited to attending church, visiting the funeral home or consuming a case of beer on the back porch, many readers may feel an eerie sense of the familiar. Pollock moves with confidence through swamps, “school bus-littered junkyards and off-the-highway bars where drugs, sex and Pentecostal passions freely mingle.”

This is the natural habitat of Pollock’s characters. They are shaped and molded by dark, immutable forces which compel them to either go on mystical quests or murderous rampages. It is a place where the devout and the demonic constantly intersect. Billboards and rustic signs proclaim “Jesus is Coming,” and the local denizens readily admit either a reverence for heaven or a fondness for hell.

It may well be that many potential readers will be repulsed by the violence and otherworldly spirituality of The Devil All the Time. However, if a few thoughtful souls find a disturbing power in these stories of death and heartbreak, I would like to urge you to type this magical mantra into your Google: “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.”  Spend a little time with Andrew Douglas on YouTube in the company of Harry Crews, Tin Finger and a collection of deranged misfits who have looked into the core of their being and found both lyric beauty and terror.

 

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock. Doubleday, 2012. 251 pages.

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Fifteen-year-old Charlie Thompson is always hungry. Luckily, he is blessed with a high metabolism rate, so the excessive amounts of junk food and Spagetti-Os that he consumes does not alter his weight. Charlie rationalizes that he wants to gain weight anyway, so he can play football, but there is considerable evidence that his hunger is caused by deeper needs: the need to be loved, valued, respected ... perhaps even given a safe home, companionship and a sense of security.

Essentially, Charlie is an abandoned child. After his mother left and never returned, Charlie’s life became increasingly unstable. His father, an irresponsible provider and womanizer, often left his son alone for long periods with a few dollars and no groceries. Despite his growing anxiety about his father long absences, Charlie treasures the few good memories of fishing trips and camping.

However, motivated by hunger and boredom, the boy finally finds his way to a dilapidated racetrack where he manages to find work cleaning stalls and grooming the horses. His employer is a repugnant man named Del Montgomery, and although he occasionally gives Charlie money, the amount is scant and unpredictable. Drunken, irritable and given to obscene diatribes against everything from women, horses and debtors, Del frequently abuses and demeans the boy.

When Charlie’s father is murdered by an irate husband (a huge Samoan), the frightened boy quickly becomes both desperate and paranoid. Without a home, he tries to live at the racetrack, hiding his meager belongings in the tack-room. He begins to steal groceries (mostly canned soup and bread) and develops a talent for stealing uneaten food left by customers in fast-food establishments. Although he is often caught, he manages to evade social workers. After Del discovers that he is living at the racetrack, he refuses to pay the boy. Becoming increasingly desperate, Charlie begins to break into local homes when the residents are at work. He takes food from the refrigerators, takes a shower, and after washing his clothes, he cleans the house and sneaks away.

In those brief moments when Charlie is warm and well fed, he often dreams about an aunt ... Margy Thompson, his father’s sister. In her visits to the home, she had taken a interest in Charlie, taking him to movies and buying him clothes. After a bitter argument with his father, she had never returned, but Charlie fantasized about her, dreaming that she lived alone somewhere in Wyoming and she would take him in and perhaps he would enroll in the local high school and play football. However, Charlie’s dreams are also haunted by nightmares of the huge Samoan who killed his father.

The heart of this marvelous novel concerns the relationship between Charlie and a quarter-horse named Lean on Pete. Although tending to dozens of horses, Charlie is drawn to the horse because he identifies with it.

Charlie quickly learns that race horses are only well-treated when they are winners. Lean on Me is a winner, but like Charlie, he is nervous and “easily spooked.” When Lean on Pete develops a nervous condition that could easily lead to his being killed ... like other unproductive horses that are not “earning their keep,” Charlie becomes obsessed with a plan for saving the horse. When Del orders the boy to load Lean on Me for a trip to track for another buyer,” Charlie does the only thing he can. He steals Lean on Me.

At this point, Lean on Pete becomes a “journey novel.” Charlie and his horse begin a trek from Portland to Rock Springs, Wyoming. It is a daunting trip, fraught with peril, and Charlie seems destined to encounter every cruel and unsavory aspect of being homeless. Predators abound, and long after this hapless horse has ceased to be Charlie’s responsibility, Charlie travels through deserts, slums, youth centers and the dark streets where he is often beaten, frequently frightened and always hungry.

Despite the fact that this gentle boy rarely encounters kindness and sympathy, it does happen. Strangers feed him, give him a place to sleep, and give him money. What is most significant about these “random acts of kindness,” is the fact that they exist at all. Charlie Thompson’s grim journey seems to be designed to make him a hardened criminal, for along the way, survival requires that he learn to lie, cheat and even bludgeon a psychotic attacker with a car jack. Time and time again, he encounters callous indifference and cruelty; yet when kindness is offered, he invariably accepts it with gratitude.

The author, Willy Vlautin, is being hailed as a new Steinbeck and/or a disciple of Ramond Carver. These comparisons are valid since Vlautin’s writing reflects the same compassion for the powerless — the people in American society who are defenseless. Vlautin is mindful of the tragic plight of the homeless, of abandoned children and abused women. There is some talk of making Lean on Pete required reading in those levels of society where Charlie Thompson’s brothers and sisters live. There are countless thousands who, unlike Charlie, do not have an Aunt Margy who will rescue them from those dark streets.

In conclusion, is should be noted that Lean on Pete contains a graphic description of Portland Meadows, a dilapidated racetrack in Oregon that refuses to close. Over the years, it has become a gathering place for the rejects of the racing world. Designed for 10,000 people, this track continues to operate with a regular audience of less than one thousand. There are over 1,000 horses at Portland Meadows, but they are not the pampered winners at other tracks.

Vlautin’s description of this anachronism is painfully accurate for the Meadows embodies a generous number of denizens like Del Montgomery who treat their horses and employees with abuse and cruelty. Doubtless, there are jockeys and groomers as benighted as those in Lean on Pete. However, as the Steinbeck quote accompanying this review, that is not the total picture. Sometimes, beneath the rusty exterior, Charlie has brief encounters with human compassion.

 

Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin. Harper, 2010. 277 pages

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Thursday. Throughout this anguished and gripping tale, this day of the week, Thursday” is usually italicized, suggesting that it has some special (and possibly sinister) significance. Specifically, it is the day that Eva Khatchadourian’s son, Kevin (two days shy of his 16th birthday) will kill 11 people. Taking the form of an epistolary novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin consists of a series of letters written by Eva to her “estranged” husband, Franklin. In essence, these letters represent Eva’s painful attempts to discover the reasons for her son’s decision to murder nine of his classmates and two adults. It is a daunting task.

By turns witty, arrogant, defiant and defensive, Eva records the details of her life in an attempt to find clues ... something that answers the provocative question, why? Where did it begin? Why did her morose and inverted son plan and stage a massacre in a school gymnasium? As she slowly sifts the chronology of her life ... the details of her marriage, revisiting every major and minor conflict, she searches for the flaw that led to disaster.

As Eva recounts her successful career as writer of a travel book series entitled “A Wing and a Prayer” — books which provided guidance to “economically disadvantaged travelers” — Eva recalls the factors attending her decision to have a baby: how she became increasingly aware of her biological clock (she is in her late 30s) and develops a devious scheme to have a baby despite Franklin’s ambivalence about parenthood. However, since they are wealthy, both would-be parents are confident that they can provide an exceptionally stable environment for a child. Eva plans Kevin’s birth as carefully as she orchestrates and markets her travel books.

However, there are disquieting factors from the beginning. Kevin rejects his mother’s breast and will only accept formula. Eventually, he also rejects toilet training and wears diapers (which he soils at an alarming rate) until he is nearly 6. Babysitters and care-takers quit. Daycare teachers complain of Kevin’s “asocial behavior,” and though he resists learning to talk, he perfects an irritating ability to “mimic” his mother’s speech in a sing-song voice — “Nah, neh, nah, nah, Neh, naw ...”— a talent that she suspects is a calculated attempt to anger her. Distressed by Kevin’s listless manner and his growing hostility to others, Eva begins to wonder if it is possible for a child to actually resent being born. Certainly, there seems to be little in life that pleases the sullen boy. By the time he begins school, he has already developed a bored and indifferent response to all attempts to elicit his interest: “Whatever,” he says, giving the response of the jaded and bored teenager.

Gradually, Eva realizes that instead of suffering from “attention deficient” or any of a host of mental impairments, Kevin is very intelligent. In addition, his indifference to his school, family, clothing and music is genuine. Ruefully, Eva notes that she had her son tested for Downs Syndrome, but “did not have him tested for malice, spiteful indifference, or for congenital meanness.” In time, it becomes evident that Kevin sees the world as “pointless,” viewing it with either hostility or repugnance.

However, he has an ominous fascination for the rash of school shootings that are happening with alarming frequency. He becomes a kind of authority on each incident. He can list all of the “vital statistics” — age of shooter, number of victims, choice of weapons, etc. — smugly noting that he is contemptuous of suicides and killers who leave elaborate notes. Kevin prefers motives that are “unknown, hidden and/or mysterious.”

In conjunction with Kevin’s growing antipathy for the world around him, Eva is alarmed by a series of “accidents” and disturbing events in which her son may have played a part. Kevin’s sister is blinded in one eye as a result of a suspicious accident; an unknown person plants incriminating evidence in the lockers of popular students, evidenced that suggests that they are budding terrorists or racists. Kevin acquires a “friend” who appears to be as maladjusted as he is, and the two boys create a plot that involves accusing a teacher of sexual improprieties; the local police show up inquiring about an alleged “prank.” Someone is dropping rocks and bricks from an overpass onto motorists.

Unfortunately, Eva’s growing distress is not shared by Franklin. What she sees as danger signals, Franklin sees as the robust vitality of a growing boy. When Eva confronts Kevin, Franklin invariably springs to his defense and assumes the role of a tolerant father who encourages his son’s interest in hunting by buying him an assortment of weapons ... including a crossbow. Franklin also promotes a series of father-son activities such as camping and visiting historic sites … including Vietnam. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of this relationship is the growing evidence that Kevin despises his father and will create a special punishment for him.

As the fateful date approaches — April 8, 1999 — Eva becomes increasingly anxious. Later, she will recall in detail the last family breakfast. Especially noteworthy is Kevin’s remark about his mother’s affectionate goodbye to Celia, the sweet and timid daughter. “Sure you don’t want to say goodbye to Celia one more time?” In the years to come, she will wonder if Kevin was hinting about the unthinkable acts that were to come.

We Need to Talk about Kevin will probably become a celebrated and hotly-debated book in the coming months. The fact that there is already a movie version in the theaters, featuring the brilliant actress Tilda Swinton, suggests that Hollywood is mindful of the fact that both the film and the book may prove to be “significant.” Eva, faced with the decision of hiring a lawyer to defend Kevin, observes that “We live in a time where lawyers see trials as games, not morality plays.” She is right, of course, when she continues, “We live in a country that does not discriminate between fame and infamy.”

A number of critics are comparing We Need to Talk about Kevin to works such as Rosemary’s Baby, and admittedly, I was reminded of a Ray Bradbury short story, “The Little Assassin” and a marvelous book by William March (circa 1950s), The Bad Seed. However, Lionel Shriver’s novel is no mere “spook” tale. Although it is a disquieting novel with a “Grand Guignol” ending, there is more here than a momentary scare. It poses a provocative question: why are these massacres happening? Is there a hidden cord, a motif that bounds them together? Is it, as Shriver suggests, a desperate yearning to become “special” in some way in a world where they feel both purposeless ... and anonymous?

 

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Harper Perennial 2012. 500 pages.

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Several months ago, I reviewed Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, and received an unusual number of responses from readers. In general, the responses were positive. However, there were a few readers who found Woodrell’s description of Appalachian (Ozark) culture distorted and misguided. However, others defended Woodrell’s descriptions of Appalachian life in Winter’s Bone as painfully accurate.  A few spoke with some bitterness about their experiences as “newcomers.”  At length, the whole debate wound down, but it is by no means resolved.

Now comes a new work by Woodrell, a collection of twelve short stories entitled The Outlaw Album. Like many fans of this author, I had thought that Winter’s Bone, despite the bleakness of Ree Dolly’s life, contained a powerful redemptive theme — one that suggested that this teenager would not only survive, but would become the means of saving her family. In effect, there was something innate in Ree Dolly’s genes that would sustain her. She would find a way to keep the land and protect her brothers.

Well, there is nothing in The Outlaw Album that speaks of redemption. These beautifully crafted short stories nestle together like 12 black pearls in a velvet-lined box ... luminous, lethal and uncompromisingly dark. The themes are familiar ones: a conflict with a new neighbor that turns into a murder; a wheel-chair bound serial killer; a campground manager who finds himself in a deadly conflict with a marauding gang; a storeowner, grieving for his missing daughter, and becoming increasingly paranoid as the years pass, wondering if his daughter’s killer is one of his customers. Then, there is the man who sets fire to a real estate development in an attempt to return the land to the way it looked before the developers came. On and on, these spare, dark tales unwind ... each a testament to the infinite variations in the nature of evil. Is it inherited or imported?  Is it a random virus or a judgment?

The protagonist of “Black Step,” an Iraqi veteran who has decided to re-enlist, relates the tragic aftermath of his father’s suicide and how his ailing mother painted the back-step black because it was stained with his father’s blood. After a life-time of raising livestock, the Girard farm is failing and is surrounded by new homes and real estate developments. Before leaving, the Iraqi veteran notes that the farm and the family cemetery appears to be sinking out of sight and observes that he “likes graves that disappear.”

“Night Stand” is possibly the most frightening story in this collection. It is narrated by a man named Pelham, who awakes one night to find a naked man standing by his bed growling. Seizing a knife, Pelham stabs the man to death. Belatedly, Pelham learns that the dead man was an ex-Marine (like Pelham). Eventually he comes to feel that he has been manipulated by a deranged man who wanted to commit suicide. In his search to find why the dead man “selected” him, Pelham befriends the victim’s father. As a consequence, both learn a heartbreaking truth.

“Two Things” proves to be possibly the most despairing story in this collection. Essentially, it defines a meeting between a social worker and the father of a boy named Cecil who is up for parole. The social worker has brought a scrapbook filled with Cecil’s “creative works” ... poems and drawings that allegedly bear witness to Cecil’s innate creative talent. The social worker wants the father to speak on behalf of his son, but she learns that Cecil’s family no longer feels that he can be redeemed. The father says, “He ain’t getting no more poems off of us.”

“The Horse in Our History” attempts to reconcile all of the contradictory folklore in a small Texas town regarding a legendary horse, a black jockey and a Afro-American prostitute named Dyna Flo. Was there an historic race? Was the dead man found by the railroad tracks the jockey? Did the town die because Dyna Flo was ostracized? Was Bleu the name of the horse or the owner?  Is it possible that the horse never existed and the fabulous tale told by the town folks is merely a desperate effort to keep the past alive by making it colorful?

“Woe to Live On” recounts the history of Coleman Younger, an enigmatic outlaw who rode with Quantrill’s Raiders and participated in some of the most horrifying atrocities of the Civil War. Coleman’s biographer, a man named Roedel, attempts to “honor” Younger and his vicious companions by carving driftwood images — a process that he describes as a means “whereby the large is rendered small.” As Roedel whittles and talks about the life of Coleman Younger, we learn that Roedel was a party to some of the war’s most shameful events, including mass executions and scalpings.

Particularly well done is “Dream Spot,” which relates the final episode in the life of a serial killer named Dalrymple and his female companion, Janet. Dalrymple specializes in the murder of hitch-hikers and unsuspecting motorists — that is until this final day when he finds a woman in a long coat standing on a lonely road, a woman who seems to be “predestined” to meet him here on this day.

The character Sleepy in the story “One United” enjoys his job of intimidating a farm family who are scheduled to testify in court. “Do I smell your barn burning?” asks Sleepy as he stands on the farmer’s porch. The frightened family realizes that if they speak out about some of the criminal acts carried out by the banks, they will lose their farm.

I found no stories that could be described as “uplifting and hopeful” in The Outlaw Album. Instead, I found 12 dark fables that provide proof that the world is going to hell. Like Cormac McCarthy, Woodrell not only sees evidence that the world is spiraling into chaos; he believes that we are long past a point where we could reverse the approaching apocalypse. It seems unlikely that there is a significant audience for a message like that.

The Outlaw Album is a paradox: dark and depressing, but beautifully crafted.

 

The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell. Little, Brown and Company, 2011. 168 pages

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The Leopard marks the eighth crime novel featuring the chain-smoking alcoholic Inspector Harry Hole of the Oslo Police Department, an agency that is rife with political intrigue, corruption and ineptitude. However, since Hole is immune to politics, doesn’t take bribes and has a reputation for always solving murder cases, he is the department’s calendar boy ... a fact that makes him despised by many of his fellow officers.

Somewhere between the last chapter of The Snowman, and the opening pages of The Leopard, Harry has managed to acquire yet another offensive (but secret) addiction: opium. In fact, his addiction is the direct result of the mental and physical traumas he suffered (he lost a finger and ended up with a broken jaw that left him badly disfigured) in tracking down Norway’s most notorious serial killer, the Snowman. 

Consequently, The Leopard is a sequel to Nesbø’s previous crime novel, The Snowman. In fact, the captured Snowman, who is slowly and painfully dying in prison, plays a significant role in the search for the new serial killer. (In a scene which is reminiscent of “The Silence of Lambs,” Harry Hole bargains with the Snowman for some insight into the mind of the new killer.)

As The Leopard opens, the reader learns that Harry has resigned and fled to Hong Kong where he has become an addict who spends most of his time trying to evade his debtors (he gambles). In fact, Harry seems well on his way to a nameless death in a Hong Kong slum when Kaja Solness, a police woman from Oslo, finds him. She has two messages for Harry: another serial killer is on the loose in Oslo; and Harry’s father is dying. Allegedly indifferent to yet another bestial killer who has dispatched two victims by a cunningly constructed device called Leopold’s Apple, Hole responds by finding a way to smuggle cigarettes/opium to Oslo and returns home and to Oleg Hole’s hospital bed.

For the uninitiated, it should be noted that Harry Hole is, in every sense of the phrase, “a work of art.” Women always comment on the fact that he is “Tall (6-foot, 4-inches) ugly and blond.” He is also a shameless admirer of American pop culture and prides himself on his encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood crime films (“Dirty Harry,” “French Connection” and the “Godfather” trilogy.) He plays Coltraine and Charlie Parker jazz, collects bluegrass and is currently reading a biography of Hank Williams Sr. His taste in art runs to painters like Edvard Munch and most of his favorite writers are (like Harry) manic depressives (Charles Bukowski, Jim Thompson).

His love life tends to be steamy and violent. He is totally devoted to a Russian paramour, Rakel, who is afraid to live with him because Harry’s arch-enemies invariably try to kill her and her son, Oleg. (The Snowman took them as hostages). However, Harry’s devotion to Rakel does not prevent him from sleeping with a bevy of sultry ladies, including Kaja Solness.

The Leopard has an intricate and convoluted plot which alternates between frantic attempts to intercept the killer. Each time Harry Hole learns the identity of a potential victim, he finds himself enmeshed in an interdepartmental power struggle instigated by a ruthless and ambitious official, Michael Bellman, who attempts to seize control of Oslo law enforcement agency by creating a competitive department called Krypos. For the political chess game to be a success, Bellman schemes to discredit both the existing police department and Harry Hole. As a consequence, Harry finds himself frustrated at every turn as Bellman contrives to interfere with the investigation and take personal credit for subsequent arrests.

When the number of fatalities increases to eight, Harry discovers that four of the victims spent a night in an isolated mountain retreat and ... the killer was also there. Hole and Kaja narrowly escape death when a scheme to draw the killer back to the cabin fails. Trapped in the cabin, Harry and Kaja are buried in an avalanche (created by the killer). Time and time again, Harry confronts suspects only to discover that they are not the killer he seeks but are often guilty of other crimes.

Of all of the Harry Hole novels, The Leopard proves to be the most complex. The plot becomes a tangled mass of intrigue with an atmosphere that grows dark and menacing. In addition, the excessive number of characters makes it difficult to remember who did what to whom ....and why.

Before Harry’s final confrontation, the reader may come to empathize with Harry Hole’s sense of disgust and loathing at the world around him. Certainly, The Leopard contains an excessive number of people who are motivated by self-interest: power, greed and envy. In all of the previous novels, Harry Hole has “got his man,” but each time, he has paid for his success by physical and mental suffering. It is no surprise then to discover that in the final, terrifying pages of The Leopard, a drugged Harry wakes in an abandoned church to find something painful in his mouth.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The Leopard by Jo Nesbø. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. 517 pages.

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About 20 years ago, the book collector’s magazine “First” published an impressive article on George Pelecanos, a new writer that was not only imminently collectable, but was (in their opinion) destined to “change the face of crime fiction.” That was the start of my admiration for Pelecanos. Quite honestly, I found the novels consistently brilliant, especially his early works like A Firing Offense, Shoedog and Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go.

Many successful writers prefer to set their novels in their “signature” location: T. Jefferson Parker frequently uses Orange County, Calif.; James Lee Burke loves Louisiana; Many of Dennis Lehane’s characters are at home on the back streets of Boston; and Carl Hiassen (like the late Charles Williford) prefers Miami.

Pelecanos’ turf is Washington, D.C., and his characters move, fight, love and murder each other in the labyrinthine streets of the capital city. In fact, reading a Pelecanos novel is like taking a tour of D.C.’s nightclubs and restaurants while Spero Lucas does a running commentary on the city’s polyglot cuisine, music and crime as he rides his bicycle from Dupont Circle down Georgia Avenue.

However, Spero is a unique creation. Home from Iraq with a lot of bad memories, he quickly becomes a successful cop, but he has what could be described as an unstable “moral compass.” He frequently finds that he has little patience with a spectrum of petty crimes — marijuana (Spero smokes pot himself) and prostitution seem irrelevant in a city filled with violence and mayhem. Due to his training, Spero can kill with speed and efficiency.  In addition, he is never troubled with guilt or misgivings since he only kills people who are intent on killing him.

Oddly enough, Spero is a devoted son who spends generous amounts of time with his Greek family, especially his brother Le, who is a school teacher. Still distraught over his father’s death, he makes frequent trips to the cemetery to deliver flowers. There is also a host of relatives and neighbors that are a vital part of Spero’s life -— relationships that this hardened cop values.

When the narrative of The Cut moves abruptly from Spero, the mindful son who engages in affectionate repartee with his brother, to Spero, the unemotional killer (his hands are truly lethal weapons and his ability to utilize fire arms is awesome), the transition is unnerving. Perhaps what is most troubling is Spero does not hesitate to violate the very laws he has sworn to enforce ... if the need arises.

Consider the significance of the title. The Cut refers to Spero’s portion of an illegal activity. Spero agrees to enter into an agreement with Anwan Hawkins, a known trafficker of marijuana, who has developed an inventive way to transport his product: He simply mails it by FedEx to an address where he knows the resident will not be home. Then, the party purchasing the marijuana arrives with a van and hauls the delivery away ... usually within minutes of delivery. The resident never knows that his address has been used. A problem arises when “someone” arrives and picks up the package (worth about $130,000) and drives away. Anwan asks Spero to find out who is stealing his pot. Spero readily agrees since he has no moral qualms about trafficking in marijuana anyway.  His “cut” will be 30 percent of the marijuana’s value ($50,000).

Why does Spero do it? That is a good question and I’m not sure Pelecanos provides us with an answer. Perhaps it is his expensive lifestyle, since he is part of what appears to be a kind of D. C. “cult” about dress: Spero wears Carhartt clothing and Wolverine boots. Every item (shirts, watches, automobiles) is selected for the prestige of the brand name. Spero loves good food and music. Many of the juveniles that Spero encounters conform to the same “cult” — some even wearing clothing with highly visible price tags and brand names. Tastes in music and sports are regulated in the same manner.

However, the problem in The Cut is more serious than FedEx pot and clothing styles. Two amiable young men, Tavon Lynch and Avon Davis, have the highly profitable job of picking up the FedEx packages for Anwan Hawkins and allegedly find that someone had beat them to it.

When Tavon and Avon are murdered, Spero suddenly finds that he is no longer a part of a questionable activity involving stolen pot. The stakes are suddenly much higher, and Spero’s investigation brings him into conflict with a crime figure (who is a former policeman) known as Rooster Holley, a repugnant man who has surrounded himself with a half-dozen assassins. When the situation escalates, Spero intuitively knows that not only is his life at risk, but also the lives of his family and even his neighbors. His warfare background tells him that not only must he strike first, but that his enemies must be totally eradicated.

In many ways, The Cut is a disturbing book — not because of the violence and brutality depicted, but because of “the message.” Spero can dispatch a would-be assassin with his hands. He can acquire illegal firearms (with serial numbers removed), slaughter a half dozen vicious criminals, and then throw all of the guns into a river ... just like a criminal would do. If need be, he calls “friends” to assist him — men who bear the scars of warfare, but will guard Spero’s back in the same manner that they would have do so in Iraq or Vietnam. Spero is subject to “urges” ... a compulsive need to complete grueling physical exercise (a 25-mile bike trip), to have sex, or to confront a force that threatens his family. There are times when his behavior resembles that of a predator rather than an investigator. He knows how to move quietly in the dark.

To me, the problem is the uncertain wavering of Spero’s “moral compass.” Is it possible that our most effective defenders — those who stand between us and chaos — are men who are very similar to those who threaten us? I am reminded of James Elroy’s novels that often conclude by revealing that the only difference between the cops and the criminals are the uniforms. Should our anxiety be relieved by the fact that Spero is not a total brute? He is capable of love, compassion and loyalty. He is, undeniably on our side. Is that enough? Should we admire him?

The Cut by George Pelecanos. Little, Brown & Company, 2011. 292 pages

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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Saddle up, kind hearts. I have a winner. Like most good things, this book came to me from a good friend who is in a position to read books that I would normally never see. Knowing something of my eccentric tastes it literature, my friend sent me an urgent dispatch, saying I should purchase it immediately. So I did and here we are.

Brodeck’s Report meets all the requirements of qualifying as a beautifully-crafted French novel (translated by John Cullen) that not only has the power to enthrall, but also posses some significant questions about humanity’s condition: are we blessed, doomed or merely irrelevant?

From the first page, Brodeck’s Report reflects that “timeless” quality that we associate with fables and fairy tales. Claudel’s characters move through a Brothers Grimm world in which the inhabitants of a small village are identified by their occupation: Schloss, the innkeeper; Diodeme, the teacher; Orschwir, the butcher; Cathor, the pottery-mender. The time is uncertain, and although there are distinct references to WWII atrocities (concentration camps) and 20th century technology (Brodeck owns an ancient typewriter), the novel’s small village seems timeless — a world where the necessities of existence (food, shelter, procreation) follow the ancient rituals that attend seasons. Change only comes to Claudel’s village with invasions and war.

Brodeck, the reluctant protagonist, has been given the dubious honor of writing a report regarding a mysterious incident that occurred at the local inn – the murder of a stranger who had recently arrived in the village. Since Brodeck owns an old typewriter (the only one in the village), he has been ordered to write an account of the crime. He is reluctant to do so. As time passes and the inquiries about his report become more impatient, the reader begins to sense that something sinister has occurred in the past.

As Brodeck becomes increasingly paranoid, he begins to write about events from his own past, events so horrifying he has attempted to erase them.

Eventually, we learn that Brodeck is not a native of the village. Although he has a family (his mother, wife and daughter) and has spent most of his life in this village, he is aware that his neighbors consider him — like the stranger who was recently murdered at the inn — “Anderer” meaning “he came from over there.”  In other words, the villagers consider both Brodeck and the murdered stranger someone “who is among us, but not of us.”

Brodeck came to the village as a child and grew to become a valued member of his community. In fact, when he is an adult, the village elders send Brodeck to a nearby city where he will learn skills that might prove useful in the village. The homesick Brodeck yearned to return to the village, and his beautiful wife Emelia, and finally he does so. However, he is troubled by events that he had witnessed in the city where he had seen people attacked, called “Fremder,” and driven from their homes. Eventually, he learned that “Fremder,” like the word “Anderer,” was an offensive word used to describe “unwanted foreigners.”

For several years, Brodeck is blissfully happy in his village. Then, war erupts in the city and eventually an army appears. An officer orders the mayor to “cleanse” his village or suffer the consequences. Bewildered and desperate, the mayor consults the town elders and together they create a list of “Fremders” — eccentrics, misfits, people who are not “native to the region. Brodeck is one of them.

Brodeck’s three years in the prison are filled with unspeakable horror. Although he survives, he is reduced to a bestial state and witnesses crimes that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Indeed, he is a participant in shameful acts. He remembers that his guards force him to walk naked on all four like an animal and taught him to repeat the mantra, “I am nothing.”

When the war is over, Brodeck returns to the village to discover that his wife is now a mute due to a brutal gang-rape, and that she now has a daughter, Poupchette — a child that Brodeck readily accepts as his own. Slowly, he rebuilds his life despite that fact that he knows that his neighbors have previously cast him out as a scapegoat.

So we come to Brodeck’s task — a report that gives an objective account of how (and why) the stranger at the inn was murdered. Brodeck “sees” the crime, but did not participate in it. He describes how the “Anderer” arrived in the village with a pampered horse and donkey, acquired lodging at the inn where he ate and drank to excess. Initially, he is accepted and a number of the villagers attempt to befriend him. The Anderer listens, but says little, and as the weeks turns into months, the villagers realize that he makes careful notes of all he sees and hears. At length, when the visitor shows no inclination to continue his journey to other towns and cities, the village begins to resent his presence.

On the night of his death, the Anderer treats the village to a kind of party complete with lavish food and wine. He even distributes a kind of personal “gift” to his guests .... a drawing that manages to capture the essence of each individual. Far from being pleased, the villagers destroy their paintings and their mood turns dangerous. Who is he? Why is he here? Is he judging the people of the town? Is he condemning them? When the villagers draw their knives and surround the Anderer, Brodeck withdraws, becoming a witness.

Brodeck’s Report is a dark parable. There is much here that could be termed “Kafkasque” since the novel’s atmosphere is thick with a kind of sinister threat, as though something unspeakable was about to happen. In addition, much of the action reminds me of the films of Michael Haneke, the German/Austrian director, who takes great pleasure in presenting dark tales of betrayal and moral decay (“The White Ribbon”).

Despite the sobering message behind Brodeck’s Report, this novel is probably a masterpiece. Admittedly, it is bleak, but it is also redemptive, for it affirms some essential goodness in mankind, something that rises despite overwhelming odds, and goes on. Brodeck does that. Like Aeneas fleeing Troy, Brodeck takes up his aging mother and his mute wife and his daughter, and he walks out of the village. He will start again somewhere ... where, doubtless, someone will call him “Fremder.”

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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Deer hunters call it “field dressing.” The dead deer is suspended head down from a sturdy tree limb and the hunter eviscerates the deer, leaving all internal organs on the ground. The carcass is much lighter after the organs are removed, and the hunter can transport it home easily.

However, the subjects of field dressing in The Blue Hour are young women, victims of a murder/rapist who hides behind the driver’s seat of their automobiles. After murdering them, he hangs their bodies from trees (frequently in Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, Calif.) and drains their blood.

When the first murder sites are discovered, the police are baffled by the fact that there are no bodies ... just a patch of blood-soaked soil. Usually, the victim’s purse shows up – one of those large one with handles (sometimes delivered to police headquarters) – and each one is packed with the victim’s intestines.

It is probably not surprising, in view of the grisly details given above, that T. Jefferson Parker’s The Blue Hour has acquired a reputation as this prolific crime/fiction writer’s most gruesome work. Readily acknowledged as one of America’s most gifted writers of fast-paced and tension-loaded action, Parker works are usually character-driven (L.A. Outlaws, Iron River, Triggerman’s Dance). In all fairness, although The Blue Hour contains two remarkable protagonists – Tim Hess, a semi-retired veteran cop dying of lung cancer, and Merci Rayburn, a young, short-tempered and very ambitious woman who has vowed to excel in law enforcement before she is 42 – readers are likely to find that the dark and chilling interior of the “Purse Snatcher” killer’s mind dominates this novel.

Tim Hess has been divorced three times and now finds himself alone and childless. As a consequence, he begins to perceive his involvement in the Purse Snatcher murders as an opportunity to make his life count for something. His investigation is slow and methodical; his 40-year career gives him a tenuous instinct that serves him well.

Early in the investigation, he begins to build a file of tenuous details: evidence that the victim’s car had been “jacked” with a slim jim, the frayed bark of a tree limb, a tiny fuse found in a victim’s car that had no reason to be there. Tim’s investigation contrasts radically with Merci’s aggressive impatience, yet this angry woman who pistol-whips and abuses witnesses, drives too fast and leaves a trail of offended citizens every place she goes also makes significant contributions to this search for a killer who is striking with increasing frequency. Tim and Merci are a mismatched pair, but they gradually build a working relationship that becomes deeply personal.

Like all of T. Jefferson Parker’s novels, The Blue Hour shows evidence of meticulous research. Some of the most unpleasant passages in this novel prove to be the most fascinating. Patterson’s previous works have contained marvelous arcane facts about guns, automobiles and California history. The Blue Hour bristles with fascinating and disturbing facts about abnormal psychology.

For example, one of the most offensive characters interviewed by Tim and Marci is Matamoros Colesceau, a Rumanian who is a convicted rapist and has been paroled provided that he allows himself to be “chemically castrated.” Colesceau is injected and interviewed each week, and as time passes, Colesceau loses his hair, his genitals shrink and his breasts enlarge. Due to the fact that the doctors treating him feel that he still represents a possible threat to others, his residence is revealed by the local media. The message is: “You need to know that you have a convicted rapist living near you.” Colesceau loses his job and is facing eviction. In addition, his neighbors have organized a 24-hour-a-day surveillance and protest outside his apartment.

Although Colesceau’s crimes were against elderly women and despite the fact that he is incapable of sexual performance, the public outcry orchestrated by the media brands him as dangerous. Tim and Merci must maintain a watch on Colesceau despite the tact that their search for the Purse Snatcher Killer requires interviews with possible witnesses and an exhaustive search for a silver van, an embalming machine and a man in a cowboy hat named Bill. Indeed, this frantic search becomes increasingly surreal as Tim and Merci come close to the final revelation.

Several years ago, I read another novel (English) that dealt with the same subject as The Blue Hour. In this instance, the criminal, a convicted pedophile, was living in a London suburb with his father when his cover was blown by the local media. Based on an actual event, the author described how the pedophile’s life was affected. The protests became more and more violent, and eventually it became obvious that some of the protesters were intent on mayhem and murder. Attacks were made on the pedophile’s home and some people attempted to burn his apartment.

Although The Blue Hour ended before civic violence broke out, I was left wondering about those happy campers — those folks who were camped on Colesceau’s lawn, sharing punch and cookies, passing out religious tracts and waiting for “the beast” to emerge. It may be that some insight into the morality of this murky affair is offered by the title of this novel. According to Wikipedia, “the blue hour” comes twice each day. It is that period in the morning and the evening when it is neither night or day. It is a time when it is difficult to clearly discern objects and the world seems nebulous and dim.

So, after all is over and done, the readers of The Blue Hour may not be left with just warm feeling for Tim and Merci (they certainly deserve to be viewed that way!), but also the image that may linger is “the despicable monster” trapped in his home and an angry mob at his door ... like an image from an old Frankenstein film. There is also an irony in the fact that both Tim and Colesceau are being subjected to a chemical treatment that makes their life unpleasant. As poor Tim deals with chemotherapy and Colesceau copes with Depo-Provera, both lose their hair, their appetite and much of life’s joy. 

In the end, both of these men die. Colesceau’s going will cause the world to breathe easier. Tim will be remembered because during his career, he saved three lives ... four if you count Merci ... and five if you count the baby.

 

The Blue Hour, by T. Jefferson Parker. Hyperion, 2000. 464 pages

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One fall when I was 9 years old, just about the time WWII ended, the Jackson County Elementary School was visited by a truck loaded with magic and magicians — at least, it seemed that way to me. When we peeped through the window on the second floor, we saw a truck with an elaborate sign: THE CAROLINA PLAYMAKERS! That sign meant absolutely nothing to us, but the people who climbed out of it left us stunned. There were lots of bright colors, parasols, soldiers, women with wigs, some folks that appeared to be Oriental and a guy wearing an aviator’s helmet. Maybe it was a circus!

Within a short time, we were herded into our creaky old auditorium and our teachers began to check the attendance book calling our names out so that they echoed. Nobody had escaped; in fact, all of us were filled with curiosity. When Mr. Cope, our principal, announced that a troupe of actors and traveled from Chapel Hill to perform a play for us, we were even more perplexed since we knew nothing of a place called Chapel Hill, much less what a “troupe of actors” might be.

There was a lot of coming and going, and I sat with my best friend, Charlie Kay, listening to the thump and rumble behind the curtain. Ah, but then the music began; the curtain opened and we were astonished into silence for the next hour.

I’m sure that the majority of us had never seen a play and perhaps that is the primary reason for its effect on us. It was a dramatization of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, and we were transported from Sylva to some mystical village in the Himalayas (Shangri-La) where people wore huge coats and monks went about chanting. Gradually, we understood that the pilot was in love with this girl in a magnificent dress, and when the two walked together in the moonlight (yes, suddenly it was night on the stage!) and we learned that these people never died ... if they never left the village.

But, the pilot did leave, and in the final scene, he flew away. The beautiful girl stood on the stage and waved as her boyfriend flew away, the sound of his plane going from a great roar to a faint hum.

When the play was over, the Carolina Playmakers invited us on stage, where we were amazed to see that the set was painted cardboard. When I asked to see the plane, a stagehand laughed and pushed a piece of cardboard into an electric fan.  “ERRRRROOOOOMMMM!” it said.  That was the day I began to dream of magic and the art of making fantasies and dreams which could get up and walk around.

When I went to college, I learned how to build stage sets, hang lights and construct my own Shangri-La.  When I began teaching high school English, I took one-act plays to regional and state festivals where I saw my students not only win awards, but become young people who had learned to speak with confidence. Invariably, their experience with drama had a positive effect on their character.

Now, I come to the “real” purpose of describing the night a 9-year-old kid visited a cardboard Shangri-La. For some 40 years, drama and theater enjoyed a privileged position in North Carolina arts. North Carolina was praised for the quality of its theater and playwrights like Paul Green crafted plays that were admired by the rest of the country. Educators readily acknowledged that drama played a vital part in developing confidence. But now, something has changed.

We still have extravagant musicals and thriving summer stocks that “entertain” thousands of audiences. The majority of our small towns have active community theaters. However, for several years now, something has been quietly draining away. Perhaps this is only happening in my region. Is my experience unique? Is it not true that one-act drama festivals have disappeared?

Since I am a playwright, I am especially sensitive to the fact that grassroots theater seems to be endangered. More than a decade ago, I could go to any literary festival and find a covey of playwrights. Back then, I might even be asked to teach a workshop. When it comes time to hand out the accolades, there are glowing awards for novelists, poets, even essayists, but I haven’t seen the work of a dramatist acknowledged in a very long time.

A decade ago, although resources for playwrights were limited, I could still find a handful of organizations that promoted North Carolina playwrights and drama. They are gone now, although Google can still find a few of their abandoned websites floating somewhere in space.

What happened? Did the state of the economy eliminate theater as an art form? Certainly, North Carolina is still vitally alive in terms of the “other literary arts.” Novelists and poets are thriving. Universities and arts organizations continue to sponsor celebrations and book signings, but drama workshops and awards are missing. Why?

Maybe they are still out there and I am just “out of touch.” Or maybe a one-act play competition for high school students has been rendered an anachronism. It could be that today’s young people are content to watch from the audience. Perhaps they are all watching “Dancing With the Stars.”

Frankly, I had rather restore the magic that the Carolina Playmakers brought to my school some 60 years ago. I would like to see that dilapidated truck pull into a parking lot in Graham or Clay counties where a group of elementary kids watched, transfixed as the moon and stars over Shangri-La are carried inside. Would that old magic work now? Would the kids cut off their cell phones long enough to watch “Lost Horizon”?

Yeah, I think maybe they would. I would like to think that if we restored the event, they would come. Am I wrong?

(Gary Carden is writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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I am a major Dan Simmons fan, but I had some reservations about signing on for this multi-layered, post-apocalyptic novel about life in the USA following The Day It All Hit the Fan. To tell you the truth, reading Flashback has been a hard jog down a rocky road. Simmons has never been a sunshine and roses author, as those of you who read (and loved) The Terror and Drood well know. However, this time out, the author’s grim and daunting worldview plumbs deeply into the lower depths of human nature.

A devastating Islamic nuclear attack has reduced America’s major cities to radioactive rubble, and a brutal invasion quickly divides most of the Midwest and the western coast into isolated fiefdoms controlled by Muslims and Japanese warlords; Texas becomes an independent country with its own flag, militia and constitution; Mexico decides to “reclaim” all of the land that had been taken from them and begins an aggressive invasion of New Mexico and the adjoining states. Surviving Midwestern Jews are herded into a sprawling camp known as “Six Flags Over the Jews” (on the site of an old theme park) and a terrifying jihad destroys Israel and six million inhabitants. American military forces are retrained by Japan as mercenaries and sent to fight in a protracted war in China.

All of these radical changes are merely some 20 years in the future. However, even the most surreal conditions described by Simmons are the projected outcome of conditions that have their roots in 20011. In case you are wondering, the economy does not recover and Medicare bottoms out. Simmons’ characters deliver harangues about how the world’s greatest superpower was brought down by a combination of governmental incompetence and public apathy. Right-wing radio programs are filled with hysterical rants; drug-crazed teenagers vandalize and rob; and America’s resources are being harvested by foreign powers. We have gone to hell. In fact, the Southeastern U. S. doesn’t even exist anymore – it is never mentioned in Flashback! (Perhaps it is a barbaric land filled with degenerate hillbillies.)

I have neglected to mention the significance of the title. Flashback is the name of drug to which 80 percent of the population is addicted. Although the drug is illegal, it is both cheap and available. In fact, there is evidence that suggests that major world powers will see to it that nothing interferes with the distribution of a drug that keeps the major part of America’s population dozing in thousands of flashback caves where they relive the past. Under the influence of flashback an addict can vividly experience the birth of a child that is long dead, honeymoons, athletic accomplishments and memorable/triumphant events – any action in which the addict felt vividly alive. Under the influence of flashback, death can be defeated ... for an hour or two.

The protagonist of Flashback is Nick Bottoms, an ex-cop living in an abandoned shopping mall in Denver. Nick, who occasionally encounters people who comment on the connection between his name and Nicolas Bottom, the weaver (and ass) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – this Nick has lost it all: Dara, his beautiful wife who died in a freakish car accident; Val, a son that he has abandoned (the embittered Val lives with his grandfather); a promising career as a detective; and, yes, his self-respect. Now, he spends every available moment under flashback with Dara and his 10-year-old son.

Now, over five years later, Nick’s flashback sessions are rudely interrupted by Hiroshi Nakamura, a billionaire warlord who wants Nick to investigate the murder of his son, Keigo. Put under continual surveillance by an astonishing array of advanced gadgetry and Hiroshi’s security officer, Hideki Sato (who resembles Odd Job in the James Bond movie), Nick reluctantly agrees, hoping to finance a lifetime supply of flashback. Despite the fact that Keigo’s murder has been investigated repeatedly, Nick agrees to retrace his steps and re-examine the original witnesses – especially those who were attending Keigo’s opulent party on the night of his murder.

At the time of his death, Keigo was completing a documentary film on the use of flashback in America. Nick Bottoms begins to run into rumors of another drug more powerful than flashback that would enable users to manipulate and enhance the past. In addition, when Nick uses flashback to attend the Keigo’s party, he discovers an indistinct figure standing in the background of Keigo’s film ... a figure that he believes is his wife Dara. Why is she there? Nick’s determination to find the answer to this riddle provides the motivation that he needs to solve Keigo’s murder and return to a meaningful life.

However, in the process, Nick Bottom will descend into some of the most nightmarish landscapes ever described in speculative fiction. For example, Coors Field in Denver has become an open-air prison camp which houses the most dangerous criminals in America. Visiting the prison is especially risky for law enforcement personnel like Nick, but since one of his key witnesses is Delroy N. Brown (the “N” standing for the forbidden racial term that has been restored to conversation in Nick’s world and used by everyone) is in the Coors Field prison, Nick goes, clad in Kevlar-plus armor and an armed guard, plus a licensed sniper who does surveillance with a state-of-the-arts rifle ready to shoot any attacker.

Simmons is at his best in suspenseful passages such as this one. There are other nerve-wrecking passages, including an assassination attempt at the Disney Center for the Arts ... the luckless, 16-year-old Val joins the flash gang that plans this ill-conceived venture and is the sole survivor. Along the way there is a trip to the Denver Landfill Number 9, the place where thousands of nameless dead are dumped each week.

Much of Flashback consists of following two journeys: (1) Nick’s search for answers to Keigo’s murder and his wife’s mysterious connection with this crime and (2) Val’s attempts to be reunited with his father (and perhaps kill him). In time, these two treks will converge and three generations (Leonard, the grandfather, Nick, the father and Val, the son) will join forces to face the “final conflict.” There are some surprises here and some of them may strain the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.”

Amid all of this darkness and subterfuge, there are patches of brilliant narrative. There is also an excess of deadly details about the power of automobile engines, the magnification strength of sniper scopes, and the marked improvements of military weapons (speed, destructive power, weight, etc.) All of this is verification of Simmons’ awesome research.

Finally, I was pleased to learn that Nick Bottoms comments on the solving of the Jon Benet Ramsey murder in Bolder, Colo. (1996). Although Simmons does not reveal the identity of the killer, I was gratified to know that this crime will finally be solved.

Flashback by Dan Simmons. Brown and Company, 2011. 553 pages.

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During the five years that I spent at Western Carolina University (1954-58 and 1965), I had the good fortune to attend classes under some extremely gifted but eccentric instructors. There were two Rhodes scholars that passed through the university like a summer cyclone, leaving a modest amount of wreckage in their wake.

One of them would sometimes appear on campus at midnight wearing a Scottish kilt. He sang Robert Burns songs and did a raucous little dance down the sidewalk between Hoey auditorium and Stillwell (some witnesses claimed that he did not wear underwear). Another, sporting a magnificent beard and speaking in a deep baritone, told us raunchy stories and taught us to write our names in Greek.

Since this was a “beardless era” at the university, he was told to shave. According to the campus gossip, he told the administration that he had a rare disease and that if he shaved, he would die. Some were skeptical, but they left him alone. There are numerous stories about this venerable scholar who managed to both offend and delight numerous teachers and administrators.

However, the most interesting personality in this motley crew was Dr. George Herring. Unlike his colorful associates, George survived ... or at least, he chose to stay. As a consequence, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of his former students scattered across the United States that remember him with affection and admiration. Certainly, there has never been another like him in my experience.

George’s attire and physical appearance was memorable. He sometimes sported a ragged tweed jacket, but weather permitting, he usually wore colorful (striped) T-shirts, wrinkled pants and sneakers (not tennis shoes) and no socks. He always seemed to be in need of a shave and his hair was always in such disarray I used to imagine that the last thing he did each morning before he came to his first class was to massage his head until his hair was a total mess.

In the classroom, he was filled with a kind of spastic energy, charging aimlessly about the room and talking excitedly. A student may have signed for a course in medieval literature, but George would be delivering a brilliant lecture on astrology or Chinese dictionaries.  Somehow, his students never felt cheated because somewhere in all of that constant flood of arcane knowledge, he would learn a great deal about medieval literature.

What rendered his students rapt was George’s feverish excitement. He loved what he was doing, and as he raced back and forth between the students and the blackboard, he laughed, wrote significant quotes on the blackboard, stopping occasionally to rake his disheveled hair into even greater disorder.  Sometimes, there would be sudden bursts of anger, directed at some disputable idea or person (Erskine Caldwell, predestination, etc.), but it would vanish as quickly as it had appeared, leaving us, his enthralled audience and George, an amiable elf. This fellow was wonderful!

Over the years, I had heard people talk about George’s “Everyman” lecture which was part of his course on Medieval Drama. The lecture had acquired a kind of “folklore” status at the university and each year, as the day approached for the Everyman Lecture, people who were not enrolled in the class began to call. I had the good fortune to hear this presentation twice and I can attest to the fact that there were attentive listeners standing in the room ... some from other universities.

Due to the fact that I was a theater major, I tended to perceive George as “theatrical.” When we were all in our seats, staring at the door in anticipation, George entered wearing his ragged tweed jacket and carrying a little attache case ... an item that I perceived as a “prop.” George began by telling us that he had attended Northwestern University and that each year, the university staged an outdoor version of the old play, “Everyman.”

As he recalled it, the stage was built at a point where two rivers converged and the banks of the rivers had a sound system, consisting of numerous loudspeakers. The play began as the sun was setting.  In the opening scene, a character named Everyman” was in a tavern with a bar maid in his lap drinking and singing. Then, suddenly the summons came. “EVERYMAN!” and that word echoed down those two rivers: “Everyman! Everyman! Everyman ....”  Then, Everyman stands, a bit frightened and says, “Who Calls?”  The answer, loud and echoing is “Death calls, Everyman.”

At this point, Dr. George Herring goes into full performance mode. He tells us the story of how Everyman begs for time, pleading that he does not want to go to his final judgement alone. Could he have time to seek out companions to go with him? Death agrees, but notes that Everyman must return promptly within an hour. In a series of frantic visits, Everyman goes to his companions who have names like Money, Beauty, Power, Love, Family, Strength, etc.

Regretfully, they all decline, stating that on this last journey they cannot accompany their friend. “You must go alone,” they say. As Everyman prepares to leave, a small frail figure named Good Deeds appears and agrees to accompany Everyman. He apologizes for the fact that he is so weak, noting that Everyman has neglected him all of his life, but finally, the two figures climb a nearby hill where Death waits by an open grave with a ladder. As total darkness comes, gravediggers with lanterns surround the open grave as Everyman descends.

Now, here is the thing. We had all read the play, “Everyman” in the textbook. Although we may have found it a bit grim, I am quite sure that none of us found the experience “riveting.” Ah, but Dr. George Herring’s version left us limp and speechless. As George read the lines, as he pled with his friends to come with him, we were transfixed by his words. As Herring finished his lecture, he picked up his notes, dropped them in the little attache case, stepped to the door and opened it. He then flipped the light switch, leaving us in darkness and closed the door. For a single moment, we sat silent and motionless .... and then the bell rang for the end of the class.

I have often wondered about that final moment. Did Dr. Herring have his lecture timed to interface with the flip of a switch and the closing of a door?

I do remember that no one moved for a while.

George is gone. The halls that he once walked and the classrooms that he once made vibrant with ideas an images are now filled with a different breed of scholars. There are no memorials outside of a few personal tributes by former students over the years.

However, I do believe that golden moment when George Herring closed the door and flipped that light switch is the most fitting tribute a teacher can have. Ave, George.

(Gary Carden is a storyteller and writer who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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If you are one of those readers who has a grudging respect for outlaws, and if you find yourself sometimes fantasizing about putting on a mask, stealing a fast car — say, a Corvette 706 with 505 horses under the hood — and roaring through the night into some abandoned warehouse where a scummy bunch of crooks are dividing up their spoils (stolen diamonds, drug deal profits, etc.); if you dream of firing a couple of warning shots from your trusty pistol, scooping up all of that money/contraband and then speeding away into the night, well, dear readers, T. Jefferson Parker’s L. A. Outlaws is the book for you.

This fast-paced crime fiction opus is designed to give the reader a delicious, forbidden thrill as we speed through the dark underbelly of Los Angeles with Allison Murietta, the sensual, dangerous great, great, great, great, great, great granddaughter of the legendary outlaw, Joaquin Murietta. Joaquin was hunted down, murdered and beheaded in 1853 and his head was once exhibited floating in a jar of alcohol in California sideshows. However, his descendant, Allison Murietta, has become something of a celebrity. She robs KFCs, Starbucks, Taco Bells, Burger Kings, Radio Shack, Payless Shoes and Dennys — chains that Allison calls “poverty boxes” because they exploit their employees (Allison has worked in those places). She always leaves a business card, “You have been robbed by Allison Murietta, Have a Good Day!” before she strides through the exit, brandishing her derringer, Canonita (a kind of small, modified shotgun that has no accuracy after 10 feet). Invariably, Allison gives the money to charities (well, most of it).

Now, for a bit of unadorned fact. Alllison Murietta is actually a 32-year-old prize-winning schoolteacher named Suzanne Jones. Although she has a lifestyle that is totally out of sync with a teacher’s salary, she manages to maintain her wild adventure (she is a gifted car thief) while living with her husband (her third) and three sons on a large California ranch. She readily admits that she is unstable, shockingly carnal and has a tenuous grasp of reality. In effect, she seems to know that her criminal career is probably going to end with her in a shootout and dying on the floor of a Dennys.

In the meanwhile, she expects to enjoy the best — wine, sex, expensive clothes, cars and thrills. She often observes that she is never more alive than when she is waving Canonita in the faces of terrified employees and awestruck customers. Eventually, her audience starts clapping and the security camera film in the robbed stores starts to show up on TV. Allison loves the camera and often poses with the manager of the store she has just robbed.

However, what really makes L. A. Outlaws purr and shimmy like a stock car at the Indianapolis 500 is T. Jefferson Parker’s talent for developing tension and character. Especially noteworthy are two remarkable men, a cop and a killer. Both are destined to affect the destiny of Allison Murietta. Lupercio Maygar, a bandy-legged, little Salvadorian assassin will make your skin crawl. Born in the slums of El Salvador, Lupercio survived by learning to be “unremarkable.”

After he finds both his brother and his father in the pile of dead bodies that are dumped each night in a landfill, Maygar migrated to L. A. where he quickly became involved in the vicious drug wars — an assassin for hire. His weapon of choice is a machete (which, like Alllison’s derringer, has been “reconditioned” to house a shotgun in the handle). Even after murdering 12 gang members, Maygar is never arrested due to the fact that there are no witnesses to his crimes.

At the other end of the spectrum is Charlie Hood, a patrolman who is troubled by his dreams of a slaughter that he witnessed in Iraq. Now that he is back in L. A., he is struggling to create a purpose for living and since he finds himself surrounded by corrupt law officials and burgeoning violence, he is beginning to lose faith in what he is doing ... until the night that he stops a speeding Corvette and meets Suzanne Jones, who gives new meaning to the term “flirt.” The next day, he learns that a bloody massacre has occurred in an automobile repair shop near the place where he stopped Suzanne.

The reason that Suzanne is “out and about” that night is that her “other self,” Allison Murietta, has picked up on a rumor of a big diamond heist — the spoils of which are about to change hands in an auto repair shop. Not content with the modest sums that she gets in the chain stores and fast-food joints, Allison dreams of making the big steal — a half million or so in uncut diamonds.

However, when she arrives at the auto shop prepared to fire a warning shot into the air, demand the stolen goods and speed away, she gets a shock: the shop contains 10 heavily armed (but dead) men ... a shootout and no survivors. When she finds the diamond in a backpack, she thinks her dream has come true. When she hears footsteps, she hides and watches a small man with a machete move silently through the building and vanish. The diamonds will buy her the comfort and security that she needs to spend the rest of her life ... nurturing her three sons and pursuing sensual pleasures. When the midget with the machete is gone, she stashes the diamonds in her Corvette and speeds away — only to meet Patrolman Charlie Hood a few miles down the road.

The reader eventually learns that the local crime lord has dispatched Lupercio Magar to pick up a shipment of stolen diamonds from a jewelry store owner. Magar arrives to find the same bloody massacre. Someone has been there before him and they left with the diamonds. Lupercio gets in his cherished 1973 Lincoln and begins cruising the surrounding roads where he eventually finds  ... one highway patrolman, a feisty woman and a Corvette. Of course, he drives on, but Suzanne and Lupercio have seen each other now.

Eventually, Lupercio figures it out. Allison Murietta/Suzanne Jones has the diamonds, but worse than that, she saw him when he passed silently through the murder scene. No one has seen Lupercio and his machete and lived. This woman must die. For those of you who have seen Javier Bardem as the relentless murderer in “No Country for Old Men,” be assured that there is something that is as inexorable in the tiny killer Lupercio Magar.

Aside from the teeth-gritting tension in L.A. Outlaws, this novel is also filled with a lot of hot breath and passion. Yes, Charlie Hood and Suzanne Jones can’t keep their hands off each other. Of course, Charlie suspects Suzanne’s “real identity,” but each time he decides to do something about it, he finds himself keeping another rendezvous. Suzanne/Allison is paranoid and feels that Charlie is about to betray her. All of this guilt and paranoia seems to merely add more zest to the sex.

L.A. Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker. Dutton, 2008. 371 pages.

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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?

C-A-P

T-A-N

C-A-S-K-T

 

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.

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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

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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.

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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?

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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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.

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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

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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.

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Dirt Music by Tim Winton. Scribner and Sons, 2003. 411 pages.

Well, dear reader, we are about to discuss a remarkable book. It has been a while since I read anything that qualified as innovative in both style and content, but Dirt Music explores a land (Australia) and a set of characters that qualify as disarmingly “original.” Before I had covered 10 pages, I knew that the frequent encounters with bizarre animals (quolls, wallabys, green ants and a 100-pound fish called a barramundi) would have me making frequent visits to the Internet reference, Wikipedia. Add a wilderness filled with strange trees (boab, which look like they are upside-down with their roots in the air), mulga, eucalyptus (tuart) and a host of deadly snakes, octopi, alligators and sharks — all capable of snatching, hapless, unsuspecting prey from the land. Add multi-colored soil and tropical heat, and you have a world of surreal beauty and menace.

The inhabitants are equally unique: hard-drinking fisherman who have turned White Point from a tin-roofed shanty town in western Australia (circa 1940’s) into a gaudy city where excess is the norm: great, hulking, air-conditioned mansions and yellow-brick villas, yachts, Olympic swimming pools and African safaris — all paid for by a savage, shameless depletion of the region’s sea life. Each day, untold tons of abalone, lobster, snapper and mullet are ripped from the sea and shunted into the world market. Yet, despite the Cadillac/Ferrari and French wine lifestyle, White Point has a curious frontier-town atmosphere in which suspicious outsiders are greeted with blatant hostility (they sometimes vanish) — especially, outsiders who might want to fish without the benefit of local license/approval.

Luther Fox is an outsider, even though he is an inhabitant of White Point. A member of a notorious family of shiftless, drug-dealing musicians, Luther is the sole survivor of a grisly car wreck that killed his wife and his brothers and sisters. Giving up music and retreating to the abandoned family farm with his sole companion, a mongrel dog, he spends his time reading. No one knows that he exists and he might have lived this way indefinitely ... had he not made a near-fatal mistake. He begins to covet the easy money to be had by fishing. Under the cover of darkness, he trolls the forbidden waters of White Point.

Georgie Jutland is an outsider, too, but she has little in common with Luther Fox. A daughter of one of Australia’s wealthiest families, she has spent a rootless existence wandering through a variety of careers and cities. After flunking out of medical school, she finds herself in White Point married to Jim Buckridge, the town’s most successful fisherman. Georgie quickly discovers that she is also a failure as a stepmother (Jim has two children by a previous marriage) so she drinks too much (she sometimes shucks her clothes at inappropriate times – like her mother’s funeral) and spends most of her nights watching old Betty Davis movies. Troubled by insomnia, she frequently wanders the pre-dawn beach. Lately, she has been thinking vaguely of suicide. Ah, but then one morning, she sees Luther Fox’s old truck parked where it shouldn’t be, his dog chained to the wheel. She and the dog go for a swim, and suddenly her life changes forever.

Dirt Music probably qualifies as “a love story” since it contains a series of smoldering sensual encounters that are guaranteed to get the readers’ attention. They certainly got mine! Despite their differences, Luther and Georgie have an explosive attraction to each other. However, as soon as their relationship becomes ... well, intense, Luther is forced to flee into the most remote section of Australia with no goal in mind except a vague desire to find an uninhabited island that Georgia had once described to him.

It is a mesmerizing journey that resembles a trek into a primordial past — a land untouched by humans ... except for occasional aboriginal cave paintings and mysterious stashes of camping supplies. Eventually, Luther finds himself in “an unmapped land” where his physical and mental reserves are nearly depleted. As he abandons the trappings of civilization, he begins to yearn for the past: books, music and Georgie.

In the meantime, Georgie has launched a search for Luther. She is assisted by her husband whose motives are questionable, to say the least. As the two lovers struggle unwittingly towards a reunion, tension builds, Luther’s sanity wavers and the exotic flora and fauna becomes even more surreal.

Read this one. It is “a trip” in more ways than one.

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Just After Sunset by Stephen King. Scribner and Sons, 2008. 367 pages.

Unlike the majority of his peers, Stephen King keeps expanding his territory.

Certainly, he could have put down roots in any of a dozen horror genres ranging from the paranormal (Carrie) and alien invaders (The Tommy Knockers) to vampire gothic (Salem’s Lot) and he would have prospered effortlessly. Instead, he continues to explore new territories. For King, “new territories” are of two types: (a) the deceptively commonplace topics that dominate the media (and our lives); and (b) ideas that pay homage to revered storytellers of the past (H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen). I also detected a trace of Poe here and there.

Consider some of the settings and/or characters that exist in the 13 short stories that comprise Just After Sunset: A hitchhiker who appears to be a deaf mute, but may actually be an avenging angel; a woman who turns to running on a remote beach as a means of dealing with her grief for a dead child only to discover that suddenly her life depends on her ability to run; an elderly man trapped in an overturned Porta-John in an abandoned housing project in Florida, and there is only one way out; a high school graduation party in which the future is rendered meaningless by an apocalyptic light, a mushroom cloud, and a vaporized New York skyline; a train station somewhere in Wyoming filled with commuters who are just beginning to realize that they are dead; a phone call that was made from an office in the Twin Towers — a call that arrives three days after 9/ll — on the day of the caller’s funeral. “Time is unstable where I’m calling from,” says the apologetic caller.

King’s characters do not come face to face with horror in a decaying Victorian mansion, but in abandoned housing projects in Florida, psychiatrist’s offices and rest stops on the interstate. Their demons are not from hell, but often originated in their own deranged minds — a fact that does not make them any less real. The narrator of “The Things They Left Behind,” finds himself delivering mementos to grieving relatives — souvenirs from the desks of his co-workers who died in 9/ll ... items that he finds each morning on his desk in his new office and which he dutifully delivers, because he survived ... and he is guilt-ridden about it. As chilling as these “current events” tales are, King is at his best when he takes up the themes of H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, two venerable masters of the “unspeakable” terrors that lurk behind and/or beneath our world. This is the “world of Cthulhu” — an evil so immense, it defies our ability to define it. In the story, “N,” a psychiatrist attempts to treat a patient with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) only to discover that the patient’s obsession with numbers and his compulsion to arrange objects in patterns is a strategy to keep the malign powers of Cthulhu at bay. Gradually, the psychiatrist discovers that the world is covered with ancient sites (like Stonehenge) that were designed to resist Cthulhu’s relentless striving to enter our world. The patient N’s barrier requires constant vigilance at a location called Ackerman’s Field — a place in which seven (or is it eight? Eight is good, seven is bad!) stones stand in a lonely field. When the psychiatrist visits the field, he belatedly learns that he has now become the sole defense against Cthulhu.

Especially noteworthy in this collection (and his recent novels) is the fact that Just After Sunset introduces a new theme or motif in King’s growing compendium of things to fear. His characters are aging. Some of his protagonists are elderly, in poor health and worried about the unstable economy, medical expenses and Alzheimers. As a consequence, much of the descriptive details in this collection stress mortality and a preoccupation with its harbingers, such as the smell of aging flesh and the dread of failing kidneys — very real fears!

Although the growing number of senior citizens (and their accompanying problems) in King’s novels and stories may offend many readers, others will find the addition gratifying. King himself is aging and has been plagued by a variety of medical issues. I find his willingness to explore this “new territory” admirable. It comforting to discover that King’s characters will be joining me in my routine trips to the doctor’s office, the druggists and my cautious drive to the grocery store.

I wonder if this means that we may soon see the author on the cover of AARP?

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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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.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa. Penguin Books, 2001. 246 pages.

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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.

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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.

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Occasionally, books are published in the U. S. that can best be described as “oddities” which acquire a kind of cult following. Their popularity has little to do with literary merit, even though they frequently have much to say about social and cultural matters. Essentially, they appeal to our fascination with the bizarre, morbid and extraordinary.

Some notable examples are: In Advance of the Landing by Douglas Curran (extraordinary photographs and interviews with people who believe that an alien invasion is imminent); and Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (a bizarre photographic journey which depicts the impact of the Depression on Wisconsin’s rural farm life). Oracle of the Ages is a biography of Georgia “witch and fortune-teller,” Mayhayley Lancaster, who died in 1955.

According to the author, Dot Moore, there are a significant (though dwindling) number of people who not only remember Mayhayley but are willing to talk about the tall, thin woman with one eye who lived in a Heard County shack with her sister and “told fortunes” on weekends. In fact, the visitors who came requesting a personal audience in the 1940s and early 50s often stood in lines that stretched away into the woods. Neighbors noted that Atlanta and out-of-state license plates were common.

Those who witnessed Mayhayley’s “performances” invariably commented on her physical appearance: slender, homely, dressed in an old army coat with epaulet’s and a military cap. She also customarily kept a marble in her empty eye socket and would sometimes remove it, polish it on her sleeve and pop it back into place. She also kept a menagerie of cats and dogs that slept on the porch (the dogs went to church with her).

Essentially, Mayhayley claimed to be able to find lost items: wedding rings, jewelry, money, lost cattle and missing people. Although there were occasional “misreadings,” the majority of the old woman’s prophetic statements were uncannily correct and specific. For example she instructed one visitor who had lost a valuable ring to go home, “walk to the end of the porch on the right side and look down.” She often described the physical characteristics of a thief (frequently a relative or former employee) and, on several occasions, she located stolen cattle that had been sold in another state.

Mayhayley’s closest associates also revealed that fortune-telling was not the oracle’s only source of income. She “played the numbers” and made an impressive sum by selling lottery numbers that “had a high probability of being winners.” At one time, Mayhayley taught school. At another time, she came into the possession of a set of law books and, after a period of study, began to operate as a lawyer. She also ran repeatedly for political offices, including the Georgia Senate.

Although Mayhayley continued to live in her shack for most of her life, she acquired a considerable amount of land and money. Due to her distrust of banks, she concealed her money in random places, including hen’s nests and jars buried in the garden or the surrounding woods. After being robbed repeatedly, her relatives and the local law officers forced Mayhayley to retrieve the money and put it in the local bank. Moore gives a marvelous account of how the money was collected (along with a generous amount of chicken manure and dirt), counted ($30,000) and deposited in the local bank. Most of her neighbors continued to believe that she had considerable wealth that was never found.

The incident that brought Mayhayley national prominence concerned a murder trial at which the Heard County oracle was called as a witness. Indeed, Mayhayley’s testimony contributed to the conviction and execution of John Wallace, a prominent Georgia farmer who was also a former customer of Mayhayley’s. Wallace often sought her advice regarding missing livestock. In time, the murder trial served as the basis for a book, Murder in Coweta County (1976) by Margaret Ann Barnes. The book, in turn, inspired a made-for-television movie (1980) starring Johnny Cash, June Carter (who played Mayhayley Lancaster) and Andy Griffith.

A number of noted figures found their way to Mayhayley’s porch, including Tallulah Bankhead, Ferroll Sams and Celestine Sibley. Eventually, Celestine became an ardent fan and did a series of articles on Mayhayley for the Atlanta Constitution. Many years later, Sibley stated, “She was a fortune teller, an astute businesswoman and the closest thing to a genuine old-fashioned witch that I ever saw.” In addition to collecting an impressive assortment of defenders, Mayhayley frequently volunteered information about the location of missing persons, including victims of drownings. During the notorious Mary Fagan Murder Trial in Atlanta (1913), she offered her services as “an attorney and oracle.”

When Maylayhey died in 1955, she left a number of unresolved legal issues that spawned a contested will and considerable bitterness among her relatives. Her estate was valued at $200,000, the majority of which she left to her sister, Sallie, and there was considerable talk about the Oracle’s sly comments about “deposits in other banks under fictitious names.”

Death did not silence the rumors that continued to circulate about the Oracle. One notes that her head was removed prior to burial and sold for an excessive sum ($1 million) to a medical research center that hoped to discover the source of Mayhayley’s powers. In addition, the grave has been vandalized a number of times by people seeking souvenirs or talismans of the old woman’s prophetic talents.

One of the best anecdotes in Oracle of the Ages is told by the author who recounts a day when her father came on Mayhayley trudging along on a road near her home and offered her a ride in his car. The old woman accepted and, on arriving in her front yard, turned to look at the children in the back seat.

“These two boys will grow up to be lawyers,” she said (they did). Then, pulling the little girl (Dot Moore) into her lap, she laughed and said, “And this one will grow up to write something about me.”

Oracle of the Ages by Dot Moore. NewSouth, Inc., 2007. 164 pages.

Comment

Storytellers draw inspiration from sources as varied as Shakespeare, the Brothers Grimm and the Bible; however, the tales that immediately produce a resonating chord in most hearts are the ones that are drawn from a storyteller’s own life. If the “teller’s life” is blessed with a colorful assortment of relatives, a collection of childhood memories and a penchant for self-effacement, he/she possesses a winning combination.

Donald Davis, like the bard of Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor, has that enviable gift. Not only can he recreate vivid images from his childhood (his favorite teachers, Valentine’s Day in the fourth grade, the first TV in the Davis home, etc.), he can prompt his listeners/readers to “recall” their own version of the same event.

As the title suggests, Tales from a Free-range Childhood represents the first in a series of autobiographical tales dealing with Donald Davis’ early years in Haywood County. As Davis — one of this country’s most noted storytellers — recalls his misadventures in kindergarten, his visits to his grandparents (who still had kerosene lamps) and his trips with his parents to church and local businesses, Davis conjures up a marvelous world filled with nostalgic landmarks: Charlie’s Drive-in, The Parkway Barbershop, Summerow’s Cash Grocery in Hazelwood, the bookmobile (a green panel truck) from the Haywood County Library, Massie’s Furniture,  Whitman’s Bakery, etc.).  Davis is blessed with total recall, even noting the difference between the taste of paste and glue in his class-constructed Valentine mailbox (he prefers the paste).

The real magic in Tales from a Free-Range Childhood comes from Davis’ ability to construct a world of “eclectic nostalgia.” The author carefully selects vivid images that convey a sense of love, comfort, safety and stability. Davis and his little brother, Joe, grow up surrounded by doting relatives, delightful playmates, a few eccentric aunts and warm and caring teachers. If there were incidents of violence, child abuse or neglect in Haywood County during the first decade of the author’s life, he carefully erased them from this chronicle of a joyful, “adventurous” childhood.

What is left then? Essentially, it is Davis’ knack for finding a kind of drama  (or moral precept) in the commonplace. For example, there’s the time 5-year-old Donald is told to “watch the baby” (his 2-year-old brother). Donald and another playmate create a game called “Make the Baby Cry,” which involved denying the baby (Joe) cookies and toys, attaching a suction-cup clown to Joe’s forehead and then covering Joe with Calamine lotion. When the mother returns and discovers Joe, she sort of “loses it.” It is a kind of “hissy-fit,” I guess (Don has a talent for provoking this response from his mother). She proclaims that “never will you be allowed to watch the baby again.” Exactly what Don wanted!

So begins an impressive catalog of “adventures” that go awry. There is an ill-advised haircut for baby Joe followed by an incident that makes Donald an unintentional shoplifter at The Toggery (a woman’s clothing shop) in downtown Waynesville. Then, there is a delightful recounting of the educational debate, “to paddle or not to paddle,” with a guest appearance by “Major Bowles,” one of Haywood County’s most beloved educators. Next, there is a trip to Grandma’s house complete with a night-time visit from the imaginary “ critters” that crawl up the wall and through bedroom window. This tale concludes with a familiar refrain: Don devises a prank to frighten his little brother who wets the bed; Don ends up sleeping in the bed.

Before readers are halfway through this book, they are likely to conclude that the young Donald Davis was the type of kid that was constantly inventing adventures who had disastrous results ... like the sled ride down a snow-covered slope into a tree. Don had convinced the kids on the sled that if they were going fast enough, they would go right through the tree. “See the tracks in snow where I did it earlier? Here they are going into the tree and here they are on the other side of the tree!”

There are stories about “cow pies” (Donald convinces Joe to jump in the middle of every cow pie the pasture); a trip to a carnival and a ride on “The Octopus” with memorable results, and a nostalgic tale about Donald’s first-grade teacher, Mrs. Ledbetter, and a Valentine Day project that was repeated in the following years. In the beginning, the students sent each other valentines and young Donald is intent in getting the largest number of anyone in his class.  However, by the fourth grade, Donald becomes increasingly aware of the little girl in the back of the room who rarely receives a valentine; eventually, he realizes there is a deeper meaning in exchanging valentines.

Donald Davis has published a great number of books about storytelling, including books on the history and techniques involved. Most of his admirers in this region are fully aware that Davis began as a minister. That fact has a great deal to do with the structure of a Don Davis story. Like a minister delivering a Sunday morning parable, he perceives his gentle and humorous tales as a means of illustrating life’s greatest gifts and joys: families that are bound together by affection, stability and mutual respect.

If storytellers develop “signatures” and recognizable themes, one of Don Davis’ recognizable components is self-effacement. His best stories involve the lovable troublemaker who gets his comeuppance. Like the tricksters Coyote, Brer Rabbit and Jack, he frequently devises a clever trap and then inadvertently falls into it himself. It is a type of humor that Appalachian storytellers learn to use as a shield — something between them and the world ... a world that cannot censor them since they have already confessed their flaws.

Tales from a Free-Range Childhood is a charming book, but, frankly I had much rather hear Don Davis tell a story than read it. Don’s greatest gifts are absent in this book: his facial expressions, his body language and, most of all, his marvelous sense of timing. Like many Davis fans, I have copies of “Barking at a Fox-Fur Coat,” and “the Crack of Dawn.” Thanks to the marvels of the Internet, I often listen to Don on televised shows that originate from Orem, Utah and Ocracoke. If you prefer your storytellers “live,” be advised.  Don Davis will be storyteller in residence at a number of locations in this area this summer, including “The Swag” near Maggie Valley.

 

Signings by Davis

• City Lights Bookstore, located at 3 East Jackson Street in Sylva, on Wednesday, May 11, at 3 p.m.

• Malaprop’s Bookstore, located at 55 Haywood Street in Asheville, on Wednesday, May 11, at 7 p.m.

• Blue Ridge Books, located at 152 South Main Street in Waynesville, on Thursday, May 12, at 6:30 p.m.

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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 ads 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 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?

C-A-P

T-A-N

C-A-S-K-E-T

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 helps 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 Cataloochee. 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.

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The Memory of Running is a “road book.” In some respects it resembles what critics in the 19th century called a “picaresque,” which means that the protagonist finds himself on a journey or a kind of quest.

That would certainly fit Smithy “Hook” Ide, except the hero of a picaresque is usually a colorful (and lovable) rascal like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, who uses his wits to escape numerous embarrassing and/or dangerous predicaments. Smithy is an overweight alcoholic who, at 46, is still living with his parents and working in a New Jersey toy factory where his primary function is to check to see if the hands of Sam, the SEAL action figure, has his palms turned in. Smithy drinks a lot of beer, eats a lot of pretzels and weights in at 279 pounds. He has no friends.

At one point in The Memory of Running, Smithy does a bit of candid self-analysis and concludes, “I put people off.” In actual fact, that is a stunning understatement. At various times in his life, Smithy is mistaken for a thief, a rapist and a child molester. Essentially, this is because he is a slob who seems to be incapable of speaking clearly. He frequently introduces himself to strangers by saying, “I am not a vagrant or homeless person. I just happen to look like one.”

A series of painful events (including a disastrous high school career and the Vietnam War) converts Smithy from a passive, introverted nerd to an overweight incoherent slob. Essentially, Smithy is haunted by his sister Bethany’s mental illness – a condition that is a bizarre mix of black humor and horror. Bethany has a “voice” inside her head that provokes her to remove her clothes, scream obscenities and tear the skin on her face and arms with her fingernails.

In addition to numerous suicide attempts, Bethany periodically vanishes for long periods of time. Each time she is rescued and returned home (usually by Smithy), she goes through a “normal” stage in which she appears sane (her affectionate name for Smithy is “Hook” because of his poor posture). However, despite the care of expensive psychiatrists (all of which are callous frauds), Bethany’s cunning and deceitful voices return. Smithy comes to believe that his beloved sister is the helpless pawn of something evil ... something that is amused by all of the attempts to “save” Bethany.

The Memory of Running is a chronicle of the disastrous affects of mental illness on family and loved ones. Ron McLarty’s depiction of the Ide family is especially appealing, complete with a father who is a sports fanatic, a mother who cooks huge meals and a multitude of relatives (“salt of the earth” folks), who eat them. Flawed, foolish and filled with good will – even Count, the huge, jocular uncle who tells racist jokes – the Ide family seem to represent the best (and worst) family values. However, when the phone rings and someone reports that Bethany has disappeared again, the Ides launches a search – each one longer than the last. Smithy rides his bike through the neighborhood, calling her name.

Then, there is Norma, who lives in the house next door, an invalid who has had a life-long crush on Smithy. Although he is embarrassed and irritated by Norma’s attention, Smithy invariably turns to Norma when yet another tragedy occurs. When Smithy’s parents are killed in a car wreck, he finds himself abruptly jerked from his apathetic life. Following the funeral, he discovers an unopened letter with a Los Angeles postmark. Smithy learns that his sister’s remains had been identified through her dental records and the city morgue wishes to know how they should dispose of them.

Thus begins Smithy Ide’s quest. Retrieving his old Raleigh bicycle, this fat, 42-year-old man sets out to bring his sister home once more. The journey is a near-impossible feat, but as it progresses from New Jersey to Pennsylvania and on into the heart of the Midwest, Smithy acquires supplies, camping equipment and a new bike. He is also beaten up, shot and run over.

However, in this journey across America, The Memory of Running acquires a marvelous quality. Each day is a revelation (good and bad), and as Smithy rides he recalls the fact that he weighed only 121 pounds when he was inducted into the service; He also remembers the fact that the doctors removed over 20 bullets from his body in a field hospital. When he returns home with a Purple Heart, he moves back in his old room and goes to work at the toy factory. Then came lots of pretzels and his mother’s casseroles.

Much of the narrative is divided between the past and the present: memories from high school and his first bungling attempts at dating are presented between the vivid images of the world that Smithy experiences on his journey. Sleeping in pastures and cornfields and subsisting on bananas and cookies, this awkward, confused man begins to acquire new qualities. He becomes an experienced biker and camper (at one point he joins a bike marathon), and as he nears Los Angeles, he frequently says, “I’m coming, Bethany. Hook is coming!”

Each night, Smithy calls Norma back in New Jersey. Throughout this long trek, Norma is the only anchor in Smithy Ide’s life. When bad luck comes, and accidents, breakdowns and violence brings his journey to a stop, he calls Norma, who sends him money. It is also noteworthy that there are numerous examples of “good luck,” strangers who are capable of kindness and generosity. When an accident leaves Smithy with a wrecked bike (his beloved Raleigh) and without food, camping equipment or clothing, one of Smithy’s benefactors purchases a professional racing bike, clothing and some expensive camping equipment.

In terms of meaningful accomplishments, Smithy’s arrival in Los Angles is secondary to the people that he encounters. Time and time again, he finds himself the willing listener to strangers who relate their personal sorrows. A truck driver plagued by the death of his brother; a sidewalk artist who creates with colored chalk tells Smithy about her lost love; the mother of a Vietnam veteran who grieves for her addicted son – all of these strangers have stories that unfold like a sad chorus of sorrow simply because Smithy is there to listen.

Eventually, this stubborn traveler (who has lost a lot of weight on this trip) begins to suspect that perhaps his role in life is ... to listen.

It would be easy to find flaws in this book. The Memory of Running is sentimental to a fault and there are times when the author’s shocking revelations fail because the reader has already seen them coming.

However, sometimes the “heart” of a book is so great, it seems petty to criticize a little bad carpentry. I found Smithy “The Hook” tremendously appealing and suspect that he will pedal through my memory for a long time.

The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty. Viking Press, 2004. 358 pages.

Comment

At the conclusion of this collection of four novellas: Full Dark, No Stars, Stephen King adds an “Afterword.” In acknowledging that his quartet of stories is “a bit harsh,” King goes on to make some provocative observations on both the reasons for his success as a writer and his beliefs about the significance and /or purpose of fiction. Essentially, King feels that writing is the act of taking meaningless and/or random events and arranging them in a pattern that gives the lives of his characters the appearance of an order and meaning. The implication is that this “appearance of logical order” is artifice, or fabrication.

What is especially interesting about King’s comments is the fact that he acknowledges a debt to the American writer Frank Norris. Anyone who is familiar with Norris will immediately recall McTeague, the author’s “naturalistic novel” that recounts a grim tale about a man who is a hapless pawn to forces beyond his control. The popular literary term that describes McTeague’s dilemma is “determinism,” and embodies factors such as heredity, environment ... and chance. With this in mind, King’s four tales acquire an additional “noir” quality.

“1922” grew out of King’s fascination with Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (which is well worth the trouble of tracking it down if you are not familiar with it). A bizarre collection of photographs and news articles, Lesy’s book presents a disturbing “vision” of the harsh life of farm families in the Midwest during the depression.

King chooses to depict such a family and gives a vivid account of the forces that move them. Wilfred James, the protagonist of “1922,” confesses the details of his wife’s death (a gruesome murder that was never discovered) and its consequences. The fact that Wilfred’s teenage son, Henry, becomes an unwilling accomplice to the crime complicates matters considerably.

In fact, poor Henry’s guilt provides the corroding poison that blights the lives of a dozen innocent people. The crime is motivated by land (Wilfred’s wife wants to sell it and move to the city and Henry is determined to keep it). When King adds a few mitigating circumstances, such as a mortgage, a ruthless banker, Henry’s pregnant girlfriend, and Wilfred’s phobia about rats, “1922” acquires sufficient deterministic forces to assure a tragic denouement. In addition, the plot includes a colorful “Bonnie and Clyde” couple (Henry and his pregnant girlfriend) who are also created (and destroyed) by forces beyond their control.

In “Big Driver,” King presents one of his most appealing characters: Tess, a gentle soul who has managed to find her niche in the literary world by developing a series of mysteries, each of which features a witty collection of ladies who solve murders while they knit (“The Willow Grove Knitting Society”). Tess is blessed by a modest “cult following,” and when she isn’t busy working on her next mystery, she augments her income (and savings) with speaking engagements. Her cozy and quiet lifestyle contains only two companions: Fritzy, her cat and Tom-Tom, her GPS (the latest in satellite navigation systems that enables Tess to find her way to her speaking engagements).

When Tess takes an ill-advised shortcut home from a speaking engagement, she ends up in a cleverly-devised trap on a remote road where she is raped, brutally violated and left for dead ... stuffed in a drainage pipe with several corpses. Unwilling to report the crime (she knows what happens to rape victims in the media) and mindful of the fact that her rapist will continue to maim and murder, Tess is plagued with guilt and anger.

So begins a fascinating study of an ordinary (moral and law-abiding) woman who is forced by circumstances to become an agent for justice and, yes ... revenge. Utilizing her skills as a researcher, she not only succeeds in identifying her rapist but discovers a surprising link between her last speaking engagement – where her “helpful employer” gave her the information about the ill-advised shortcut home. The tension builds when Tess loads her .38, feeds Fritzy, programs her GPS and drives away into the dark ...

“Fair Extension” is King’s darkly humorous version of the old Faustian bargain with the Devil. Dave Streeter, a nice fellow who has terminal cancer, finds pudgy Mr. Elvid sitting under a yellow umbrella on a side street near the airport. Mr. Elvid seems to be a street vendor and has a sign on his table that says “Fair Price.” However, he has no visible wares to sell. When Dave realizes who the vendor is and makes a cautious inquiry, Elvid assures him that instead of his soul (souls no longer have any value), Mr. Elvid wants 15 percent of his annual income. Streeter agrees and is told that if all of Dave’s misfortunes are removed, he must “pass them on” to someone else.

Dave selects his best friend, Tom Goodhugh. Dave goes home to find that not only is his cancer in remission, his life is blessed with prosperity. During the next 15 years, Dave’s fortunes thrive while Tom Goodhugh and all the members of his family ... once wealthy and powerful, descends into poverty, bad health. Does Dave Streeter suffer from guilt? Absolutely not. Instead, he dutifully forwards 15 percent of his annual income to Mr. Elvid’s account and basks in his good fortune ... which continues unabated.

“A Good Marriage” owes its origin to King’s research into Dennis Rader, the infamous BTK (bind, torture, kill) serial killer. In his “Afterword,” King notes that Rader’s wife of 34 years never had the slightest suspicion of her husband’s “secret life.” However, following Rader’s confession, she endured considerable distress due to comments by neighbors and the media. In essence, these comments suggested that Rader’s wife “must have known something.”

This response prompted King to write a story about a wife who inadvertently discovers that her husband has murdered at least 11 people during their 27-year-marriage. What would she do? In “A Good Marriage,” Darcy Anderson has a strong sense of justice, but there are “extenuating circumstances.” If she calls the police, her life and the lives of her children will be wrecked. There must be a way to bring the monster down. There is. This tale also has a satisfying conclusion that features Darcy’s meeting with a character that may remind some readers of Peter Falk’s popular character, Detective Columbo. Their dialogue is a masterpiece of evasion and implied meaning.

This is an excellent collection. King displays masterful control of his four dramas, all of which feature ordinary characters driven to extraordinary actions by circumstance. Frank Norris would be pleased.

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King. Scribners, 2010. 368 pages.

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Midwinter by Maurice Stanley. Whittler’s Bench Press, 2008. 208 pages.

North Carolina’s folklore and music resonates with the pain of doomed lovers and guilt-ridden killers: penitents who find themselves standing on a rough-hewn gallows before a silent multitude. In keeping with folk tradition, they often use their final moments for dramatic effect. “Profit from my example,” they say. “Take heed, or you, too, may try that awful road!”

Of all of the gallows confessions, none are as famous as Frankie Silver (1833). This alleged ax-murderess has inspired over a dozen novels and non-fiction treatments, several made-for-TV dramas, and a collection of bad plays and documentaries. Frankie’s notoriety is largely due to the fact that, in addition to cleaving her husband, Charlie, into pieces, she burned him in the fireplace.

Some accounts of this grisly affair have taken liberties with the facts and molded Frankie into either a courageous feminist or an innocent pawn. Over the years, the story has acquired additional layers of fanciful details, including ghosts, omens, divinations and conspiracy theories.

Maurice Stanley’s Midwinter makes use of previous treatments, including sources as diverse as True Detective Magazine, a research paper by Carolyn Sakowski and the colorful pronouncements of storyteller, Bobbie McMillon. All of the components are here: the Elkhorn Tavern (Charlie’s home away from home); the old slave from Tennessee who finds missing people by “conjuring” with a glass pendant on a string; the rumors about Charlie’s abuse of his young wife (she has multiple bruises and a black eye on the week prior to the murder); the bone fragments in the fireplace (could be teeth); Frankie’s escape from the Burke County jail and Frankie’s gallows ballad (confession?) — all familiar pieces of a story that has become an Appalachian folk legend.

What, then, is different? Is Midwinter merely the repetition of the same series of events that has been chronicled before? Well, not exactly! Stanley manages to surprise us by simply “rearranging” the order of some key events. Like the South American writer Julio Cartazar, who asks his readers to shift the order of chapters in some of his novels (thereby creating an entirely different story), Stanley skillfully creates a new version of the Frankie Silver legend — simply by utilizing a little imaginative manipulation.

In Stanley’s novel, Frankie Silver is an independent “bookish” young woman who reads Shelley, Keats and the Bible. Although Charlie Silver is a doting husband, he is also the product of a culture that stresses the subservient role of wives (Frankie’s books infuriate him). Now, add some interfering in-laws (Frankie’s mother is mentally ill and despises her son-in-law). The final ingredient is jealousy (a young lawyer named Woodfin who adores Frankie angers Charlie and a big-bosomed Elkhorn floozie who comforts Charlie when he is feeling low produces temper tantrums in Frankie.)

Although Midwinter moves toward its tragic conclusion with a kind of predestined certainty, there are some notable variations. Stanley builds a credible explanation for Charlie’s murder: Frankie acts in self-defense since she believes that Charlie intends to shoot her. (She misinterprets his behavior when, after seeing a wolf near his barn, he rushes into the house and loads his gun.) In addition, the author expands the oft-repeated suspicions regarding Frankie’s “accomplices” (the belief that Charlie’s dismemberment and cremation was carried out by Frankie’s mother and brother). This “variation” acquires additional pathos when Stanley presents a scene in which Frankie’s brother, Blackstone, is haunted by a memory: Having left Frankie at home, her mother and brother, go to Charlie’s cabin to “make Charlie’s corpse disappear.” Charlie is still alive — but not for long.

Midwinter also presents an explanation for Frankie’s strange behavior during the interval between the murder and her execution. Stanley presents Frankie as a young woman in a near-catatonic state, haunted by nightmares, and tormented by guilt. She does nothing to avoid her fate because she feels it is deserved. When she reaches the gallows, she reads her “Sonnet for Charlie” and willingly accepts the noose.

Note: Maurice Stanley is also the author of The Legend of Nance Dude — a tale of another guilt-ridden mountain woman, trapped in a place and a culture that made her a killer. His response to the tragedy and suffering inherent in the Frankie Silver ordeal resembles an observation made by W. M. Thackeray at the conclusion of Barry Lyndon. Thackeray notes that all of the grief and pain in his story occurred “a long time ago” and all of his characters are dead and gone. Their guilt or innocence is now irrelevant.

Comment

2666 by Roberto Bolano. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. 898 pages

Dear reader, it seems altogether fitting to begin the New Year with a review of the novel that is being hailed as “the book of the century.” Now, before you get cynical on me and dismiss such accolades as typical promotional blather, let me hasten to add that this is an international judgment. Here is a sampling: “A masterpiece,” says Le Magazine Litteraire (Paris); “An often shocking and raunchy tour de force,” says The New York Review of Books; “A cornerstone that defines an entire literature,” says La Vanguardia (Spain); “A world of a novel in which the power of words triumphs over savagery,” proclaims L’ Express magazine (France). The reviews from Italy, Chile (Bolano’s birthplace), England and Germany are equally enthusiastic.

The critical response to 2666 seems excessive. Certainly, no major work has been greeted with such enthusiasm since some 40 years ago when Gabriel Garcia Marquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude. In fact, one major critic noted that if Marquez laid the cornerstone of literary excellence, then Bolano has “shifted that cornerstone.” Essays are cropping up that compare Bolano to Jorge Luis Borges, the acknowledged master of South American literature and a number of American magazines are already publishing lengthy articles that evaluate the significance of Bolano’s “magnum opus.” One of the most impressive is Francine Prose’s “More is More” in Harper’s this month.

However, there are dissenters. A handful of critics found the 2666 either “chaotic” or “bleak and depressing.” Even some of the novel’s strongest advocates found the writing “ugly,” (Adam Kirch in Slate magazine) but defended the repugnant aspects as “a new an unexpected kind of beauty.” Critics are at a loss for comparisons. One critic notes that 2666 resembles the eerie, surreal atmosphere of a David Lynch movie. Another rhapsodizes about apocalyptic themes. The words “daring” and “courageous” appear in the majority of the reviews. Finally, the most appropriate critique calls the novel “a leap into the darkness,” because the author has broken all the rules of current fiction and established new ones.

2666 consists of five sections (novels?) that appear to be unrelated to each other. However, in the final section, the reader discovers that the five divisions are like “five planets orbiting the same dark sun.” Suddenly, the pieces effortlessly unite like an interlocking jigsaw puzzle.

Section One, “The Part About the Critics,” deals with a quartet of academic critics (Italian, French, Spanish and English) who devote their lives to tracking down an elusive writer who may be a candidate for the Nobel Prize. As they globetrot from city to city, they bicker, drink and fornicate with abandon (three males and one female). They finally end up in Saint Teresa (Ciudad Juarez), Mexico.

Section Two, “The Part About Amalefitano” concerns a mentally unstable professor at the University of Saint Teresa and his daughter. The professor lives in a constant state of dread because he suspects (imagines) some evil is imminent and his daughter is in danger. As it turns out, Amalefitano’s fears are well founded.

Section Three, “The Part About Fate,” deals with an Afro-American journalist who travels to Saint Teresa to cover a boxing match and ends up accompanying other journalists to a prison to interview a serial murderer.

Section Four, “The Part About the Crimes,” provides a disturbing history of the unsolved murders of female factory workers in Saint Teresa. (The style in this section resembles crime fiction and is based on the hundreds (perhaps over a thousand) of rape/murders around the maquiladoras (NAFTA plants) in Ciudad Juarez.

Section Five, “The Part about Archimboldi” chronicles the life of a German writer who survives WWII, changes his name to Benno von Archimboldi and writes a series of novels that attract national attention. However, he avoids publicity and refuses interviews. Then, a series of personal dilemmas brings him to Saint Teresa, “the city of paper houses” (cardboard slums).

It is impossible to discuss the plot of 2666 since its complexities would require extensive explanations. Suffice it to say that it is a frustrating, bewildering and, at times, an exhilarating work. Dozens of characters, including prophets, corrupt policemen, tormented lovers and psychopaths appear only to vanish and never return. Bolano shifts genres, veering for science fiction, to crime novel to “magic realism,” to erotica to folk tale and myth. Eventually, it becomes evident that the author purposely creates unstructured and meaningless action because he perceives life to have those same qualities (unstructured and meaningless).

Certainly, one of the most perplexing questions is the significance of the title. Is 2666 the future date in which the world will be reduced to sterile waste? Is that why this novel contains several thinly veiled references to the William Butler Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” and the approach of the final Apocalypse? (“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”)

Note: Robert Bolano died of liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50. However, aware of his impending death, he spent the last three months of his life preparing 2666 for publication. The final translation and publication has been an arduous, complex process. 2666 finally arrived in the United States about six months ago.

(Gary Carden is a writer, storyteller and lecturer whose book, Mason Jars in the Flood, was named Book of the Year by the Appalachian Writers Association. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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Back in the days when WCU was WCTC (Western Carolina Teachers’ College), I was one of a few kids that hung around “the little theatre” with Mabel Crum, the Chair of the English Department (circa 1950’s). In the absence of a “professional director,” Mabel (we never called her “Dr. Crum” when we talked about her) volunteered for the job and immediately announced an impressive schedule of productions.

Nothing daunted Mabel; she was perfectly willing to take on Shakespeare (“A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream”) Arthur Miller (“The Crucible”) and Sophocles (“Oedipus Rex”). We had a great time. It didn’t matter that we were mostly mountain kids with pronounced nasal twangs. After all, the audience was mostly our peers and no one seemed to notice ... Well, except for the Dr. Hayes, a recently-arrived Rhodes scholar, who stood during the intermission of “A Merchant of Venice” and announced, “Sounds as though the Avon has mingled with the Tuckaseigee.” (Mabel had to explain to the cast that Dr. Hayes was talking about our dialect.)

There were other embarrassing incidents, of course. When I did Tieresias, the blind prophet wrapped in a bed sheet, my eyes taped shut and blacked out with shoe polish (Mabel’s idea), the audience laughed the first night when I delivered all of my lines to back wall. The Western Carolinian mistakenly reported that the current production at the Little Theatre was “Oedipus Wrecks.” Mabel was philosophical about that. “Well, he does, you know ... wreck, I mean.”

And so we bungled on. In “The Crucible,” the half-crazed minister, Rev. Hale, rushed on stage and managed to loudly mispronounced a crucial word, substituting “crouch” for “crops,” as in “the stench of burning crouch hangs everywhere.” In “Sabrina Fair,” the lighted ships that sailed serenely across the bay (on a painted backdrop with movable vessels) began to fall, fluttering to the floor like fat fireflies during Sabrina’s love scene. In “Twelfth Night,” Sir Toby Belch rushed on stage five scenes before his appointed entrance to discover that he was among strangers. After delivering a few lines he bowed and announced, “I will have more to say about this later!” and promptly departed. I envied him his skillful recovery. We sped recklessly on through “Bus Stop,” “The Rainmaker” and “Antigone,” never dreaming that our unbridled fun was about to come to an end.

When, Josefina Niggli arrived, Mabel called a meeting in the WCU “Little Theatre,” and told her little rustic band of thespians that “theatre” was about to become a serious affair. While Mabel struggled through the highlights of Josefina’s astonishing career prior to coming to Cullowhee (two Book-of-the-Month Club novels, an illustrious career in Hollywood, movie and television scripts, etc.), we looked at the large woman who sat like a sleepy Cheshire cat down stage center in an ornate chair (from “Sabrina Fair”) and staring at us (we were in the audience, of course). She was alternating sips of coffee with puffs from a cigarette.

When she finally spoke in a deep Tahullah Bankhead contralto, she said, “Darlings, I’m so gratified to see you.”

We were charmed in the true meaning of that word. We sat like a hapless flock of birds, mouths agape, gawking at this feline woman who spoke in a voice that both whispered and thundered. She talked about her life in Mexico, told anecdotes of famous movie stars (she called Henry Fonda “Hank” and Lawrence Oliver “Larry”). Although we immediately became Niggli disciples, it soon became obvious that our feelings were not reciprocal.

All of us gamely registered for Acting 101 and found ourselves reading nursery rhymes aloud on the stage while Ms. Niggli drank coffee from a thermos and occasionally said, “Read it again, dear. This time pronounce ALL of the syllables.” At the end of the class, she smiled serenely and said, “Darlings, when you speak, I positively shudder.”

She then delivered a long diatribe on how communication was essential to get on in the world, and we appeared to be unable to do so. “How can you teach or work in any jobs that require communication?” When we ventured to ask about the next play, she said, “Darlings, you are a long way from being in any play that I would direct.” Then, she rose and floated slowly up the aisle, leaving us alone on a brightly lighted stage.

Students began to drop out of Acting 101, muttering that the fun seemed to have gone out of theatre. A stalwart handful persisted because they thought that perhaps Ms. Niggli was merely weeding out the “undesirables.” Eventually, Ms. Niggli directed “My Three Angels,” but ended up casting the primary roles from the English Department faculty. Many of us were banished from the theatre (I was among them), and we found ourselves reading one-acts and practicing diction. Ms. Niggli announced her resignation, saying that she found the challenge of molding us into thespians “too daunting.”

When we returned the following semester, a bright-eyed UNC graduate named Charles Barrett sat at the “Speech and Drama” table at registration. “Call me Chuck,” he said. The rumor spread that he had spent the summer as “Sir Walter Raleigh” in the outdoor drama, “Lost Colony.” He announced that he would be doing “Inherit The Wind,” and although the play had a large cast, the two major leads would be “experienced adults.” That meant the roles of Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) and Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryant) would be played by “Chuck” and a retired insurance salesman who lived off campus. The rest of us would have to be content with character roles and mob scenes.

I was in the Townhouse when I heard that Ms. Niggli was back. “That’s correct,” said Dr. Crum, “She arrived back on campus last night from Baylor. Said she would be content to teach Basic Speech 201 and Fundamentals of Grammar 101.” I got the definite impression that Mabel was as surprised as I was by the return of the Cheshire cat, but she noted that “considering her experience with theatre and film, we are lucky to have her.”

Poor Chuck. He was just beginning a career and had bought a house. He had cast “The Glass Menagerie,” and had a full teaching load ... but he was sharing the theatre with Ms. Niggli, who had decided to teach her classes there. Frequently, when he was directing students, he would turn to see Ms. Niggli, sitting silently in the darkness watching him. At first, he attempted to solicit Ms. Niggli’s opinion.

“Don’t you agree, Ms. Niggli?” he would chirrup, referring to a stage movement or a line interpretation he had just given a student.

“Chuck, darling, you are the director,” she would say and lapse into silence.

After Chuck resigned (he once said that sharing the theatre with Ms. Niggli was like living too close to the sun) and fled to Raleigh and a government job that required him to produce educational films for the state highway department, Ms. Niggli graciously agreed to once more become the head of the Speech and Theatre Department. She quietly moved into the vacant office and began directing again. In a few years, she became the campus celebrity and hundreds of students rushed to enroll in her classes. She often “held court” in her homes in the evenings where she sat in a great upholstered chair while the “Nigglites” sat on the floor around her, enraptured by her stories of James Dean, John Garfield and “Monty” Clift.

Many years later, when I returned to WCU to work on my masters, I dropped by Ms. Niggli’s office. By this time, she was something of a legend and a dozen students attended her every whim. Finding that we were alone for a few moments, I couldn’t resist broaching a question that had troubled me for years.

“Why did you come back?” I said. She laughed and said, “You mean when I renounced you all and fled to Baylor?” She drank her coffee and looked at me as though she were deciding just how much truth she wanted to tell.

“When I got to Baylor, I found a large theatre department filled with notables. They had playwrights and novelists that were far more significant than I! I was not ... unique. That is it, darling. I wanted to be honored and pampered, so I came back to this mountain college and all of these nasal twangs.”

So, there you have it. I guess I was a “Nigglite,” too, and I also sat on Josefina’s carpet, sipping coffee while I listened, enthralled by a magic world through which this remarkable woman moved with ease. She had known Thomas Wolfe, Paul Green and Tyrone Power! But yet, I will always remember Dr. Crum and the wonderful world of drama that existed “before Niggli.” When I grow sentimental about the past, it is usually for that innocent time when my heart quickened and I felt a pure joy at discovering something wonderful on a brightly lighted stage ... before it all became ... serious.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Comment

The great kite of the crucified Christ loomed and caused the crowd to vibrate. Like a pyre before him, the bank of burning candles waited. The hot pure smell of burning. A woman’s fan of blonde hair in front of him scented like roses as he walked, Billy beside him, her face glowing with hurt and understanding. He lit a candle and held it up before him. God, how his head soared and pitched, how rod-like his blood went into his veins. A candle for the birth of Christ, for the squirming of Job in his own shit, for Jonah, running like a mad bastard from the monster he knew he was.

— The Riders, p. 317

 

This cunningly crafted novel is likely to pose a unique problem for many reviewers. Winston’s complex and vivid narrative, replete with stunning imagery and pulsing color often distracts to the point that the reader is likely to forget what The Riders is about. In effect, almost every sentence in this novel has the cadence and beauty of poetry. Time and time again, I found himself reading paragraphs over and over for the pleasure of gliding through Winton’s complex sentences (which often resemble finely crafted necklaces composed of a network of images.

The paragraph which introduces this review is an example of hundreds of paragraphs that have the same amazing lyricism. Essentially, it is a description of the drunken Scully, the novel’s protagonist entering a Catholic church on Christmas Eve with his 6-year-old daughter, Billy, who has become his caretaker. Even though Billy’s face has been mangled by a crazed dog, she is desperately trying to ignore the pain in order to lead her helpless father through the back streets of Paris. Scully is searching for his wife who has abandoned him and his daughter. As his search becomes increasingly desperate, he begins to identify with Old Testament figures (Job and Jonah) and literary figures like the lurching, one-eyed hunchback, Quasimodo – a figure that his daughter feels her father resembles.

In many ways the plot of The Riders is as complex as the languages that defines it. Scully, a shy and inept Australian laborer, has had the good fortune (or misfortune) to marry the beautiful Jennifer who has “artistic aspirations” and spends much of her time in training to become a painter. Surrounding herself with a cultured (and parasitic) covey of itinerant artists, Jennifer’s obsession drives her through all of the major cities of Europe where studies under other painters. Scully supports his wife and child by earning a living as a carpenter or laborer on fishing boats. Despite the fact that he is treated with contempt by Jennifer and her friends, Scully readily accepts his role, content to be married to Jennifer.

With his wife’s tacit approval, Scully buys an abandoned farm in a remote section of Ireland and renovates it, believing that Jennifer (who is living with her artistic friends) will join him after the work is completed. On the appointed day, Scully arrives at the airport to find Billy, his 6-year-old daughter – but no Jennifer. Billy is strangely mute and refuses to discuss her mother’s absence.

Thus begins a heartbreaking odyssey. Convinced that his wife has been kidnapped or has undergone a traumatic experience that has made it impossible for her to keep the appointed date in Ireland, Scully decides to return all of the places where they have lived during the past six years: a Greek fishing village, an artist’s colony in Paris and a houseboat port in Amsterdam, etc.

It is a bitter and disillusioning journey. When Scully contacts Jennifer’s former friends, he not only discovers that none of them know where his wife is, but that they generally felt that she was both untalented and unfaithful. As Scully exhausts his savings, he reluctantly begins to consider the possibility that Jeniffer has abandoned him and Billy.

One of the most disturbing passages in The Riders deals with Scully’s encounter with Irma, a woman who befriends the father and child. However, after an attempt to seduce Scully fails, Irma becomes a kind of stalker, pursuing Scully from city to city and taunting him with the hint that she knows where Jennifer is. Although she initially appears to be a benevolent fellow traveler, Irma becomes increasingly destructive with each encounter. After she succeeds in stealing Scully’s “identity” and cancels his credit card, the bewildered father has nothing left ... but an ingenious daughter.

The Riders is a love story that records the death of innocence. Scully’s childlike devotion to Jennifer is gradually corrupted, undermined by the painful revelations of his journey. Perhaps, at the end of story when he returns to his renovated farm, he is “sadder but wiser.”

In addition to the story of Scully’s painful journey, The Riders contains a kind of fable which appears to have no relevance to the novel’s action – yet it may be a metaphor for Scully’s dilemma. Near the abandoned farm in Ireland, Scully finds the ruins of an ancient castle and witnesses a strange nocturnal ceremony. Hundreds of riders appear below the castle and wait, mutely staring up at the castle. There is no revelation. No one appears on the ancient parapets and so the mute riders vanish. They will return as they have done for countless nights. Although Scully witnesses the riders’ ceremony twice (once before his vain search for Jeniffer and once after he abandons the search), he decides not to participate in the future. Perhaps he has learned a painful lesson about the futility of waiting for a return that will never occur.

What does it mean? Why is the fable of the riders a part of Scully’s story? Possibly, the connection is that both Scully’s story and the ceremony before the ancient castle have to do with “unquestioning devotion.” Both the riders and Scully have wasted their lives waiting for something that will never come.

Certainly, The Riders is a unique novel. Winton blends poetic description, Irish ballads, an odyssey through the back streets of Europe and a mysterious fable that reads like a variation of “Waiting for Godot.” Filled with dazzling passages of lyric narrative, The Riders easily demonstrates why Tim Winton is considered one of Australia’s greatest novelists.

The Riders, by Tim Winton. Scribner, 1996. 374 pages

Comment

For quite some time now, the literary genre known as “science fiction/horror” has been undergoing radical changes. The “creatures of the night,” be they zombies, vampires or werewolves, have been transformed into either (a) terrifying creations (“Dracula 2000” and its clones) or (b) pouting Vanity Fair teenagers on steroids (“Twilight”). Bela Lugosi’s bats and cloaks are laughably out of fashion while today’s menacing creatures, endowed with astonishing powers, are running amok. Many critics of modern horror literature feel that the real, innate terrors of our modern science and technology require a more appropriate folklore — one that combines science and myth. For example, science fiction/horror classics like I Am Legend.

Frankly, this horror fan is feeling some nostalgia pangs. I am too old to be frightened (or aroused) by the cast of the Twilight Series, which in my opinion may inadvertently succeed in adding yet another baneful ingredient to the vampire legend: in addition to garlic, mirrors, sunlight and crosses, I suspect that vampires can also be destroyed by saccharine. I yearn for the return of the nightmarish world of Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu.”

Which brings me to the epic (766 pages) vampire saga, The Passage. (Let me immediately note that Ridley Scott – director of “Blade Runner,” “Alien” and “Gladiator” – has already announced that he has begun filming this novel.)

Like a number of other vampire epics, The Passage opens with a covert project, originally designed to improve mankind, which goes awry. The original mission of Project Noah is to defeat disease and vastly increase intelligence, life expectancy and physical strength by stimulating the thymus gland (which becomes dormant or inactive in most human beings after adolescence).

According to the theory expounded by the medical technicians in The Passage, the thymus – when injected with a virus (extracted from rabid bats) will create astonishing improvements in humankind. In order to demonstrate the project’s benefits, Noah needs “guinea pigs” who are willing to be injected with a virus which will either kill them outright or convert them into a “new species.” The 12 selected participants are gleaned from a disturbing collection of murderers/sociopaths who are awaiting execution in maximum-security prisons (mostly in Texas). Having given their compliance, the prisoners vanish into “The Chalet” which houses subterranean facilities, and which are staffed by a sinister mix of medics, military personnel, disconcertingly ruthless CIA agents and security guards.

In addition to the selected murderers, there is another participant: a 6-year-old girl named Amy who is kidnapped, sedated and subjected to the same injections. The result is the creation of a seemingly ageless child endowed with the power to “save the world.”

Eventually, the bizarre and inexplicable behavior of the patients prompts the establishment of some rigorous security measures – especially after the patients begin to hang from the ceiling of their cells and whisper telepathic messages that suggest that they can function as a single unit – like bees in a hive. The inevitable disaster occurs. The patients overrun the Chalet, kill the entire staff and escape. In a period of 32 minutes, the world undergoes an apocalyptic revolution and author Cronin assures us that “life as we know it no longer exists.”

At this point, The Passage abruptly moves forward almost a century, (With 500 pages of dense narrative ahead) into an embattled world filled with the relics of an earlier time: abandoned cities and interstates, rusting vehicles and millions of dessicated bodies (which the survivors refer to as “slims”). Settlements of human beings still exist, but their numbers are few. Living in bunkers, they have adjusted to a daunting routine of constant vigilance. Their days are devoted to foraging and reinforcing their boundaries while their nights are spent patrolling the ramparts of their crude fortresses. High intensity lights burn all night. (Lights that are beginning to fail.)

Their enemies are “the virals” who, in traditional vampire fashion, shun sunlight and bright lights, living mostly in dense forests and abandoned buildings. Methods of communications, although forbidden, are being slowly rediscovered and individuals with a knack for repairing engines and electronic equipment are highly valued.

The characters who live in this feudal compound are fascinating. Over the last century, their language and their customs reflect the rigors, anxieties and terrors of their existence.  Due to their stressful existence, all are haunted by nightmares (generated by the virals). The rigorous rules concerning the individual’s responsibility to the community often results in excessive feelings of guilt – a condition that results in frequent suicides.

The carnage in The Passage is excessive. To a certain extent the magnitude of violence in conjunction with the rapid passage of time seems to render character development irrelevant. No sooner do characters become interesting or endearing than they are vanquished like pieces removed in a chess game. This seems to be Cronin’s objective since his novel stresses preordained events. Individual lives are irrelevant and only exist (briefly) to move the action toward a predestined end. Whatever that end might be, it is never made evident in this novel.

The only abiding presence in The Passage is Amy. Time and again, when the characters are forced to abandon a refuge and venture into a bleak world fraught with danger, only Amy knows which direction they should go. Ageless (she seems frozen at 13 or 14), she is frequently (and infuriatingly) mute. When she finally speaks it is in order to provide information that is either vague or trivial. To tell you the truth, I didn’t like her much despite the fact that she is described as “the boat” on mankind’s journey to a safe haven.

There is no question that The Passage is an entertaining journey with lots of “jumps” and “smokes.” Frankly I found that the “mystical themes” became a bit pretentious, silly and extremely vague, especially during the final chapters. Also the number of superhuman feats and miraculous escapes acquired a comic book quality that made the willing suspension of disbelief difficult to maintain. In addition, this novel is too long by about 300 pages. However, I’m looking forward to the movie.

The Passage by Justin Cronin. Random House, 2010. 766 pages

Comment

In view of the fact that Southern Appalachia is acknowledged to be a massive reservoir of traditional storytelling, Saundra Kelley’s objective is a daunting one: to identify, interview and publish 16 of the region’s most gifted and proficient “keepers of the oral tradition.” Kelley’s basis for selection appears to be diversity, reputation and experience, and the selected storytellers range from Cherokee tribal elders and Scot-Irish traditionalists to educators/teachers and artists who combine storytelling with poetry and drama.

The three Cherokees in this anthology – Lloyd Arneach, Jerry Wolfe and Marilou Awiakta – draw inspiration from their traditional folklore and mythology. In addition, all three perceive their roles to be keepers “of the flame.” In essence, the identity of the Cherokees (“who we are”) depends on the preservation of their stories.

Both Arneach and Wolfe are prominent as storytellers throughout the Southeast and are often called upon to perform at schools, universities and tribal celebrations. Wolfe is noted for his traditional animal stories and Arneach has acquired a reputation for finding universal themes in Cherokee mythology. Awiakta grew up in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and has gained considerable respect as a poet, author (Selu: Seeking the Corn Mother’s Wisdom) and storyteller. All three of these Native Americans stress the importance of retaining their authentic “voices” which are inherent in their folklore.

Storytellers such as Elizabeth Ellis, Rosa Hicks (wife of renowned storyteller, Ray Hicks), Ted Hicks (Ray and Rosa’s son) and Linda Goss have strong ties to traditional Appalachian storytelling (Jack tales and old stories passed down from Scot-Irish, German and French settlers). Both Ellis and Goss have direct ties to the Ray Hicks (Beech Mountain) folktale tradition. Both are especially noted for their treatment of the famous tales collected by Richard Chase (Jack Tales and The Grandfather Tales); Goss (from Alcoa, Tenn.) also combines music (especially bells) and poetry with her performances and has expanded her repertoire to include the Grimm tales and Uncle Remus. She is much sought after by schools, Afro-American storytelling events and universities in east Tennessee and the surrounding area.

A significant number of the storytellers interviewed in this anthology are noted for the fact that they have used storytelling as a springboard into other creative ventures. Sheila Kay Adams, a well-known folksinger from Madison County, has parlayed her “personal folklore” into a successful novel (My Old True Love) and short story collection; Betty Smith from Black Mountain, is an author, singer, playwright and storyteller. She has spent 35 years in the classrooms, concert halls and festivals of the Southeast and has received extensive recognition for collecting, singing and storytelling.

Angie DeBord, who is steeped in the history and folklore of her native Swain County, and is an actress (Roadside Theater) and playwright and draws heavily on her family tradition for all of her creative endeavors. Jo Carson (Johnson City, Tenn.), possibly this anthology’s  most prolific artist, excels as a storyteller, a playwright (“Daytrips”) and is recognized as the driving force in launching a series of community oral history projects; she is the recipient of the Kesselring Award for Best American Play. Charlotte Ross, in addition to being a noted storyteller and playwright (“My Grandmother’s Grandmother Unto Me”) teaches storytelling and folklore at Appalachian State University in Boone, N. C.

The editor says that yours truly, from Jackson County, has used his “personal mythology” and heritage as a basis for both his stories, his books (Mason Jars in the Flood) and his plays (“The Raindrop Waltz”). Dot Jackson lives in Six Mile, S.C.  In addition to being a gifted storyteller and journalist, Dot has produced numerous short stories and a remarkable novel, Refuge.

Both John Thomas Fowler (Spartanburg, S. C.) and James “Sparky” Rucker (born in Knoxville, Tenn.) identify themselves as a “storytelling musician.” Much of Fowler’s material comes from his travels as a folk music researcher/ consultant for the South Carolina Humanities Council. His ability to combine folk music and storytelling has made him a familiar and popular performer at concerts and festivals. Rucker’s religious roots (Church of God) have led him to a career of collecting folk music, touring with folk singers and participating in events as varied as the Civil Rights Movement, Black Storytelling Festivals, and the Jonesborough Storytelling Festival.

Kelley’s interviews with these 16 “keepers of the oral tradition” reveal a number of common themes. All of these storytellers identify their early inspiration as their grandparents. In fact, the majority attribute their love of the oral tradition – not to instruction or research – but to the influence of family and the common or “natural language” of Appalachia.

Although the majority of Kelley’s yarn spinners are active participants in “the Jonesborough experience” and they readily acknowledge their appreciation of the opportunity to meet and study the techniques of their peers, there is a strong element of individuality in many of them. Although they speak with considerable reverence about their respect for the honored practitioners of storytelling, there is considerable evidence of “maverick performers” - individuals who “go their own way.” Certainly, it appears that the most imaginative and gifted are not content to spend their lives in stasis, parroting traditional material (Jack tales, fairy tales, mythology, etc.) but prefer to: (a) either treat the old tales as templates that serve as a basis for a imaginative variations; or (b) create their own, original folklore ... or perhaps even design a new way to tell a story.

 

Southern Appalachian Storytellers: Interviews with Sixteen Keepers of the Oral Tradition edited by Saundra Gerrell Kelley. McFarland and Company, 2010. 215 pages.

 

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Jackson County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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Being a diabetic with hearing problems (especially in crowds), I have days when I probably shouldn’t be “out and about.” A few months ago, when I was attempting to read the menu in a local restaurant without my glasses, I noticed that the decibel level resembled Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve. The lights were too bright, the TVs (several of them) were proclaiming world disasters and a child was screaming in the next booth. I guess I ended up staring about in confusion. Then, the waitress smiled and said, “And what does Mr. Grumpy want this morning.”

Mr. Grumpy? Was she talking to me? Then, I caught my reflection in a mirror above the counter and saw that I looked a bit like the old Irish actor, Barry Fitzgerald – a crusty old geezer who always looked like he was sucking a lemon as he threatened folks with his walking stick and said things like “Ahh, you dirty git.”

Now, here is the thing. I wasn’t feeling especially contentious. In fact, this was one of my better days. The problem was that my facial expression was at odds with my disposition. When I told a friend about the comment by the waitress, his response surprised me. He said that I had a reputation as being a bit ... crusty.

“Crusty?”

“Yeah, you know, a bit of a curmudgeon.”

“Really? Well, thank you for brightening my day.”

“There now, see what I mean?”

OK, so I am a bit testy. Aside from the fact that I think a lot of this has to do with ill-fitting dentures. Anyway, I’m not sure that I am ready to let my acquaintances provide me with a “label.” I mean, isn’t that a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy?

Since I have become aware that I am “Mr. Grumpy,” I feel a kind of obligation to act like the person I am perceived to be. Now, when people don’t agree with my taste in literature, movies and politics, I realize that I have an opportunity to be downright abusive without actually offending anyone. They merely look at each other and smile because they have “pulled my chain,” and I have lapsed into my role as a contentious old geezer. The Rhodes Cove Grinch.

So, the fact that I usually have a frustrated expression on my face ... well, this facade does not honestly reflect my inner self – my complacent, gentle soul.  Now, it is true that I am occasionally disgruntled by some computer problems ... (AOL is a blundering, incompetent and arrogant entity, and I have told them so frequently), and come to think of it, I had a number of unkind things to say about the IRS when they mistakenly attached my Social Security check last year. Then, too, I was a bit outspoken when Duke Power doubled my electrical bill.

Well, come to think of it, all this rancor developed about the same time that the company contracted to pave the street in front of my house cut down more than 20 trees on my property without consulting me, and I began proclaiming my discontent to the neighborhood. But, usually, such events are just minor blemishes on my otherwise sunny disposition.  Really.

Recently, I have been eating lunch in the Jackson County Senior Citizen Center, and I think I have stumbled into a brotherhood there. Yesterday, an old coot sat his tray down at my table and stared at me.

“Aren’t you the jolly soul,” he said.

“There are plenty of empty tables in here. Why don’t you move?”

“Well, to tell you the truth,” he said, “I feel it is my civic duty to run you out of here so the rest of us can eat without looking at your face.”

“Lots of luck,” I said. “Who the hell are you anyway?”

“Don’t recognize me, huh? I’m one of your old neighbors from Rhodes Cove. If I remember correctly, you once shot me with your Daisy air rifle.”

“Good for me,” I said.

After more of this camaraderie, I finish my lunch and got up to leave.

“See you tomorrow,” he said.

“Not likely,” I said. “You dirty git.”

Frankly, I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s lunch. Chicken and dumpling with a kindred soul.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Jackson County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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“It took Karl Marlantes 30 years to write his thunderous, brutally granular account of scorched-earth combat in Vietnam. Matterhorn was originally published by a tiny press in California before a prominent New York editor caught up to it, and now this 600-page beast of a novel is loose in the wider world, taut as a trip wire and reeking of gunpowder. It tells the story of a green second lieutenant named Mellas and his education in terror and suffering over the course of a few deadly weeks as he and his companions take, abandon and then try to retake a sheer mountain deep in the jungle. “

— Time magazine, Dec.20, 2010

 

In many ways, this is one of the most terrifying novels that I have ever read. This is largely because of the fact that Marlantes drops the reader onto a kind of treadmill that moves him (and Bravo Company) unrelentingly through a green hell of rain and fog towards oblivion and death. There is no turning around, and although the reader may object to being forced at gunpoint down a one-way path, it is pointless to resist. No one is listening.

In the final analysis, the “you are there” aspect of Matterhorn constitutes one of the reasons (and there are many) why this is a great novel. Certainly, there have been a good number of respectable, well-researched novels (Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, James Webb’s Fields of Fire, for example) on the Vietnam conflict, but Karl Marlantes’ 600-page opus (edited down from 1,600 pages) is destined to be what the New York Times calls “the final exorcism for one of the most painful passages in American history.” In addition to the compelling writing, Matterhorn has a panoramic, Wagnerian vastness that encompasses everything from “war room” strategy meetings of the commanding officers to the racial conflicts that frequently threaten to destroy Bravo Company from within.

However, Mariantes’ greatest gift is his talent for creating a large cast of characters who emerge like images in a photographer’s darkroom — images that begin as vague shapes that gradually acquire features and personality: the charismatic Jawhawk’s red mustache, Vancouver, the Canadian machine gunner, who carried a Japanese ceremonial sword; Corporal Jancowitz, who has fallen in love with a bar girl in Bangkok and re-enlisted to be near her; China, the Black Panther advocate; the timid Jacobs, who stutters; the small, ineffectual “Shortround” Pollini; and a marvelous dog named Pat, doomed to be killed when he has served his purpose in Vietnam.

More than 100 vivid characters, each unique ... but all flawed by humanity. There seems to be a terrible injustice in the fact that just as the reader begins to care about them, laughing at their quips and condemning their failings, they are suddenly gone, reduced to rotten, inert bundles wrapped in green shrouds and awaiting shipment home.

Much of Matterhorn’s three-week journey through sustained madness and horror is seen through the eyes of Second Lt. Waino Mallas, an ambitious Princeton graduate who initially perceives his Vietnam tour as a politically desirable experience in his anticipated career as a lawyer. At first, Mallas is viewed with suspicion and contempt by many of the members of Bravo company because of his ivy-league background. In addition, he quickly gains a reputation for being short-tempered and contentious.

However, in a matter of days, as he is subjected to starvation, inadequate supplies, bureaucratic stupidity and bloodshed, he begins to suspect that there is something profoundly wrong with this war. The conflict involves “people who didn’t know each other” but were destined “ to kill each other over a hill that none of them cared about.”

That hill, Matterhorn, is a bleak mountain in South Vietnam between Laos and the DMZ (de-militarized zone), which owes its name to the American command’s penchant for naming Vietnamese elevations after mountains in Switzerland. During the three weeks encompassed by this novel, Matterhorn is invaded by Bravo company, fortified, abandoned, occupied by the North Vietnamese and then retaken (at a tremendous cost) by Bravo.

Shrouded in a thick fog that renders air support ineffectual, the members of Mallas’ company spend much of their time staring at the impenetrable fog, straining to hear the sound of an approaching helicopter “like members of a cargo cult.” Unable to transport their dead and wounded, or to acquire food, water and ammunition, Bravo company spends much of its time in a kind of frozen limbo.

As Bravo company waits for food, water or the next attack, they attempt to communicate with each other. These intervals of exchange — whimsically “playing the dozens,” disputes over musical taste, debates on the nature of Good and Evil (“Are we murderers or patriots?”) and the current status of the Black Panther movement in the states — constitute the heart of Matterhorn. Ironically, these dialogues fall into two categories: those that analyze racism, God and “the human condition” with remarkable clarity, and those that spark confrontations that push Bravo company’s smoldering racism close to open rebellion.

This dichotomy suggests that war, despite its inhumanity, provides an insight into human nature that is not normally apparent. Sources as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Campbell have noted that humanity often “transcends” its inherent flaws when it is confronted with death. Second Lt. Mallas not only witnesses acts of heroism but is astonished to find himself participating in them. These are acts that attest to the bond of brotherhood that seems to surface on the battlefield. This “bond,” for lack of a better term, is love, a profound caring that is evident when Mallas watches officers send enlisted men into battle “the way a mother prepares her children before they leave for school.”

However, once the danger is past, Bravo company reverts to a burgeoning frustration and rage that often fosters a desire to turn on the inept, career-motivated officers who send them on missions in which they die without purpose or meaning.

Like all war novels, Matterhorn will be compared to its predecessors. Admittedly, I thought of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead when I encountered graphic descriptions of death and decay. I also found a bit of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 in many episodes when Mallas, like Yosarrian, encounters nightmarish events that contain a dark and grisly humor (such as a “death by Tiger” episode). However, such comparisons are superficial at best.

Finally, the novel, Matterhorn, like the bleak and enigmatic mountain it represents, stands alone.

 

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009. 600 pages.

Comment

How many times have you heard the lament, “They don’t write southern novels the way they used to”? This statement is usually followed by a catalog of classics like To Kill a Mockingbird along with a few reverent references to Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Willa Cather and Flannery O’Conner. “No one writes like that anymore,” they say.

Yes, they do. Kind hearts, let me say (if you don’t already know) that something splendid has returned to southern literature. Before you are 20 pages into Tom Franklin’s new novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, you will find yourself smiling, perhaps, saying “Yes, yes. That is it! Here are the smells and sounds of a southern morning, bird songs, dusty roads, and the splender of a midnight sky untainted by the glare of a city.”

Chabot is one of those small southern towns that has been bypassed by the interstate. Most of the stores are closed and the only business that passes for a nightspot is the Chabot Bus - literally, a former bus that is now a tavern. Then there is the Hub Cafe, noted for its unaltered menu of cheeseburgers and oyster po’boys. The last 30 years have brought changes: there are a goodly number of Mexican residents now and both Voncille, the town dispatcher, and Sheriff French’s deputy, Silas Jones, are black. The mayor, affectionately called “Mayor Mo,” is part-time real estate agent and spends most of his time “out of the office.”

If Chabot sounds like a variation of Sheriff Andy’s Mayberry, be assured that the similarity is deceptive. Over 20 years ago, a young girl named Cindy Walker disappeared and now another girl has gone missing, and M&M, a local pot dealer, has been burned to death in his car. However, everyone — including Sheriff French — is confident that they know the killer’s identity. It has got to be “Crazy Larry” Ott, the 42-year-old weirdo who lives in his parent’s old home near Chabot and operates his father’s old garage.

Everyone in town has a “Crazy Larry story.” On the night that Cindy Walker disappeared, she had a date with Larry Ott. In high school, Larry was an outcast, treated with contempt by his classmates. There was the Halloween party where Larry wore a zombie mask. And then there was his obsession with Stephen King books and magazines like “Creepy” and “Eerie.” It was also well known that Larry’s father was bitterly ashamed of his inept son (“No mechanical aptitude at all”). The community leaders were confident that eventually, the truth would surface and Larry would get his just deserts.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter chronicles Larry Ott’s story, gradually revealing the painful details of his childhood and his desperate yearning for his father’s approval. Shunned by his playmates, Ott is a solitary figure who prowls the woods near his home creating fantasy adventures until he meets Silas Jones. Although their friendship is brief and awkward, Larry never forgets it. When Silas leaves Chabot and becomes a successful ballplayer, Larry follows his career. When “32 Jones” returns (32 was the number on his baseball shirt), Ott attempts unsuccessfully to renew their friendship.

Larry Ott’s lonely life appears to be a pertinence that he pays for crimes that he never committed. Eventually, he accepts the town’s rejection, although he sometimes utters a prayer: that God will someday send him “a friend.” In the meantime, he putters with his chickens which he has named after “First Ladies,” and when he visits his mother in the nursing home he tells her that Barbara Bush is “a good layer,” but Rosalynn Carter hasn’t laid in two weeks. Then, suddenly, the miraculous happens — the long-awaited friend appears. His name is Wallace Stringfellow, and the reader is not likely to forget him.

There is a pronounced “literary echo” in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Larry Ott, ostracized and condemned by the community, bears a definite resemblance to Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. However, there is a significant difference. Whereas Boo hides from his tormentors, Larry Ott stands in the doorway of his garage each day, staring hopefully at the passing traffic. Perhaps today he will find a customer and a friend.

This modest synopsis of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter stops short of revealing a great deal. Suffice it to say that there are layers of skillfully designed details that have not been explored. Eventually, the reader will learn what happened on that fateful night that Larry Ott had his first (and only) date. There are also revelations about Silas Jones and the reasons for his rejection of Larry’s timid offers of friendship. Finally, there is Wallace Stringfellow, a character who resembles one of William Gay’s “perverse demons.” All of these revelations deserve to be discovered by the reader.

However, the greatest pleasure in reading Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter resides in savoring the masterful writing. Franklin captures the sights and sounds of the rural South with skill. When Larry Ott sits in the darkness nursing a cup of coffee on his front porch, the air is thick with the smell of goldenrod and honeysuckle. In the heat of the day, Larry smells the cut grass (he has a push mower), watches the dragonfly “snake feeders flit through his garden,” and listens to the raucous cry of blue jays. The writing is filled with images from a vanishing South, Coke machines (like the big red one in Larry’s garage, screen doors, grease pits, chicken tractors and mangled mail boxes (some with a resident rattlesnake).

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter successfully links the old South with the new and perhaps the time has come to move on. Reluctantly, Larry will have to update his garage, stow his wrenches and ratchets, and get some computerized equipment. It is time to dismantle his obsolete TV antenna and get a satellite dish. Hopefully, he may show up at Chabot Bus and someone will finally offer to buy him a beer (Silas?). He may even find another Stephen King fan — someone he can invite home to watch “The Shining” on HBO. It would seem that Chabot owes him that much.

Comment

Let me begin this review by confessing that I never heard of E.M.P. (Electromagnetic Pulse), and I was distressed to learn that its destructive potential has been readily acknowledged by both the Pentagon and the White House (Newt Gingrich wrote the forward for this novel). According to the author, the public’s ignorance of the threat posed by this silent enemy is largely due to the fact that the first information about the destructive potential of E.M.P. was released on the same day that the final report on the 9/11 catastrophe appeared in the media. In short, the horrors attending the fall of the Twin Towers so totally dominated the news (as well as the imagination of the American public) that readers paid scant attention to a new “theoretical danger.”

Briefly defined, E.M.P. represents a nuclear weapons strategy which would render an entire country helpless by simply destroying that country’s computer technology. In theory, a nuclear missile designed to detonate some 20 miles above the surface of the designated country (in this fictional enactment, it is over Kansas) would simply “erase” all computer-dependent technology. Within one second of the explosion, a shock wave would short-circuit every electrical device that it touched. In-flight planes would crash, all motorized vehicles would stop, and all communications (TV, radio, telephones) would cease. The country’s inhabitants would be unaware of what had happened until they encountered the consequences (stalled cars, dead phones and the silence attending the loss of mass communications).

In order to graphically demonstrate the devastation of such an attack, author Forstchen has created a novel in which the inhabitants of a small town (Black Mountain, N.C.) fight for survival in the aftermath of an E.M.P. attack. The first evidence that something is amiss is the stalled traffic on I-40. As the town ceases to function, the first causalities occur in hospitals where patients are on life support. Early fatalities include individuals with pacemakers and individuals dependent on dialysis. Diabetics and cancer patients are immediately “at risk.” Schools and nursing homes, now without air conditioning, electricity or refrigeration quickly become unsanitary and unsafe.

As concerns about food and drinking water increase, looting and theft become commonplace. Within three days, the local stores have been raided and the desperate civic officials have implemented martial law. Money becomes worthless and Black Mountain gradually reverts to a barter system in which bullets, cigarettes and canned goods become mediums of exchange. (Ten .22 bullets for a rabbit, two bullets for a cigarette, etc.)

John Matherson, the protagonist of One Second After (like author Forstchen), has military experience and teaches at Montreat-Anderson College. Matherson had given up a promising military career when he decided to bring his ailing wife home to Black Mountain. Following the death of his wife, this history instructor and veteran of Desert Storm had become one of the most popular citizens of the small town. When disaster strikes the town calls on him to assist in developing a survival strategy. In a matter of days, he and a few civic leaders are rationing food and water, patrolling the Interstate, collecting firearms and mobilizing vehicles that function without computer technology (pre-1970s). One of the town’s most valuable vehicles is a Ford Edsel!

The greatest threat to the town’s inhabitants proves to be the ignorance produced by the information vacuum. Although it is evident that the United States has been attacked, no one knows the identity of the enemy – Iran? North Korea? China? Unanswered questions include: Is the war over? Who won? What is going on in the rest of the world?

In conjunction with the unknown fate of America, Black Mountain and other small towns in the region find themselves coping with great numbers of people arriving from Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Atlanta. Within a matter of weeks, Old Fort, Marion, Morganton and Asheville are reduced to embattled fiefdoms that strive with little success to maintain cooperative relationships with other towns while attempting to deflect migrating hordes and protect their supplies, such as food and water and medication.

A sustained level of tension and suspense in One Second After is produced by Forstchen’s stark portrayal of the town’s speedy descent into brutal savagery. As John Matheson and the civic leaders of Black Mountain struggle to maintain the basic principles that created this country, they are repeatedly forced to acknowledge that civilization’s fragile veneer is being stripped away. Reports begin to arrive concerning murderous armies composed of thousands of armed and desperate individuals that are moving steadily toward Western North Carolina. The largest group, called the Posse, are “practicing cannibals” and have left a terrifying wake of rape, murder and ruin behind them. According to rumor, a similar group (a self-styled cult) is approaching from Tennessee.

Before One Second After has run its course, John Matherson finds all of his most cherished principles challenged. Certainly, he had not foreseen the painful decisions he would face as the town’s military advisor. Not only does he condone the killing of “invaders;” he serves as executioner. In time he even assists in converting his beloved college into a military base where his former students serve as the last barrier between the Posse and his town. He watches loved ones die of starvation and implements policies that result in the willful withholding of food and medication for individuals who are fated to die anyway (triage).

There is a daunting message in this novel. One Second After is a cautionary tale. The worst horrors depicted here (and there are many) are simply projections based on countless studies of what could happen to the United States should it suddenly lose all of its complex technical advances in one blinding flash. We are a pampered country, says William R. Forstchen, coddled by a great web of technical marvels. Take them away and we are heartbreakingly vulnerable — so vulnerable that 80 percent of us would perish before we could adapt to a world without technology.

 

One Second After by William R. Forstchen. A Tom Doherty Associates Book, 2010. 349 pages

Comment

Dear readers, if you decide to purchase this amazing novel, please consider the following advice: forget George Romero and the multitudes of lurching zombies that have become common fare in both films and novels. Purge your mind of ravenous, decaying flesh-eaters who crawl and stagger through cemeteries, suburban housing projects and shopping malls.

John Ajvide Lindqvist has re-invented the concept of the undead (just as he re-invented the traditional image of the vampire in Let the Right One In). His “undead” are more docile, but frightening nevertheless.

Lindqvist’s tale begins with a breakdown in utilities service in Stockholm. During a heat wave, electrical appliances begin to malfunction. Televisions, vacuum cleaners and electric stoves can’t be shut off. In addition, the entire populace seems to be suffering from migraines and tempers are short. Then, the inconceivable happens: all of the dead in the local morgue get up and walk. Those that manage to escape before the police arrive (trailing sheets and revealing their autopsy stitches) begin a slow trek through the city, and many are giving a piteous cry: “Home! Home!”

David Zetterburg, a popular local comedian, finds his life turning into nightmare when his beautiful and gifted wife is killed in an automobile accident. Called to the hospital to identify Eva, he arrives in time to witness his wife’s “reanimation.” Despite extensive, fatal injuries to her face and body, Eva’s corpse stirs, sits up and looks at her husband.

Elvy Lundberg had dutifully tended her husband, Tore, in his final illness. After his death, she tries to put her life together again and find peace with her granddaughter with whom she shares a kind of telepathy and “second sight.” Then, Tore, who has been dead for over a month, comes home.

Then, there is Gustav Mahler (He takes a lot of kidding about that name). He is an overweight journalist with a pacemaker and his life evolves around his new grandson, Elias. When the child is killed (he falls from the window of his parent’s apartment) Mahler is devastated. However, Gustav hears that the dead are awakening all over Stockholm, and he wonders about his grandson’s lonely grave. Although Elias has been buried for two months, Gustav unearths the coffin with his bare hands and brings Elias home ... if, indeed, the creature in the coffin is Elias.

Eventually, Stockholm’s hospital personnel, in conjunction with the police and the military, round up the dead who have now been christened the “reliving.” Totally at a loss as to what to do, the authorities confine the dead in the local hospital. The military dispatches special forces who are instructed to disinter all of the dead who have died recently (those who have died more than four months ago do not “awaken”) and a governmental announcement instructs the public to turn in their deceased relatives who return home.

Handling the Dead is not a horror novel in any traditional sense. Instead, Lindqvist uses the folklore of the undead to develop a disturbing meditation on the nature of death, love and loss. Moving back and forth among his major characters, the author tells a dark, suspenseful story.

David wishes to bring his “reliving” wife home, but her behavior becomes increasingly strange. Elvy sees a vision and is convinced that the world is on the brink of Apocalypse. Eventually, she begins to preach to her neighbors, citing the biblical passage about the dead rising from their graves. Flora, Elvy’s granddaughter takes up residence in a half-completed housing complex called Heath, which is also inhabited by a large group of young dissidents. Gustav flees with his daughter and Elias to a remote cabin where he plans to rehabilitate his grandson.

Study of the newly-awakened dead by medical and psychological specialists reveals bizarre facts. When large groups of living people visit or attempt to converse with the “reliving,” they discover that they (the visitors) can read each other’s minds. The experience proves to be disorienting since they are hearing hundreds of voices and can no longer recognize their own thoughts. In addition, the awakened dead are incapable of individual thought and only mimic the wishes (spoken and unspoken) of those around them. Much of the time they appear docile; however, they become angry or frustrated if these emotions are exhibited by those around them. The only objects that interest are wind-up toys.

Eventually, all of the awakened dead are transported to the Heath, with plans to develop it into a rehabilitation center. This move and the subsequent visits by relatives and the public proves to be disastrous. Belatedly, all of the relatives of the “reliving” realize that the beings that have returned bear no resemblance to their loved ones.

David’s wife, Eva, once a gifted writer of children’s books, does not know her husband or her child. Although she can speak (which is rare among the “reliving”), she merely repeats variations of statements others make to her. When Gustav attempts to rehabilitate his grandson, Elias becomes violent and attacks him — a response that is prompted by the anger and frustration that Gustav is experiencing because his rehabilitative therapy is failing.

As all attempts by the authorities fail, the “reliving” are abandoned. Helpless and without defenses, they are attacked and killed by bands of marauding citizens who find them participating in a solemn dance outside the Heath. When Handling the Dead draws to an end, the fate of the “reliving” is uncertain. Perhaps, lie the disenfranchised aliens in “District 9,” they will end up living on government subsidies. Another possibility is Elvy, who comes to believe that she had misinterpreted her vision. Instead of saving the living, Elvy believes that she was meant to save the awakened dead. Now she wants to help them return home. Apparently, “home” is a second death.

Excluding the violence at the end of this novel (a bonfire of the “reliving” who all die a second time and a “zombie from the sea that acts like the undead in a Romero flick), Handling the Dead has no scenes of mass carnage. Instead, Lindqvist depicts a psychological horror which arises from the realization that nothing is beyond the grave except silence. In essence, that is the message that reawakened dead deliver. Although the novel ends with a reaffirming symbol — a white caterpillar that becomes a butterfly — it does little to erase Lindqyist’s images of what lies beyond the grave: a devastating silence.

 

Handling the Dead by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Quercus Publishing. 364 pages

Comment

To buy affordable holiday gifts for men past the age of 30 can be difficult. When confronted with men who have slogged into their 40s, the task becomes formidable indeed. Givers can always wrap up some gifts that certain men will usefully employ — the Hickory Farms package of mustards and cheese, a bottle of Wild Turkey, the latest bit of techno-bling — but these gifts often generate as much excitement as the proverbial tie that was once the staple present for Father’s Day.

Give a man a book, however, and you offer him not another 4,000 calories to add to his holiday waistline nor some stupefying gizmo with beeps and buzzing. No — give a man a book, and you give him a key to a different world, a ticket to another life however briefly enjoyed, a chance both to escape his own troubles and to find in that escape some possible inspiration to return and confront those troubles.

Robert Girardi’s Gorgeous East (ISBN 978-0-312-56586-2, 2009, $24.99) whisks the reader, along with the novel’s main character, the American John Smith, out of his normal routine straight into the modern-day French Foreign Legion. Down and out in Paris, with scarcely a euro left in his pocket, Smith, an actor and singer of Broadway tunes whose luck has soured and whose girlfriend is murdered by a jealous Turk, a shady businessman who then turns his pistol upon himself, decides on a whim to enlist in the Legion. Here he endures the brutal training all must undergo who hope to join this unique collection of hardened men, professional soldiers, and drifters (all nationalities are welcome in the Legion except for the French themselves; they may only serve as officers or under an assumed nationality).

On completing his training, Smith falls under the tutelage of Colonel Philip de Noyer, a French aristocrat who is slowly being consumed by a hereditary madness. De Noyer loves his young wife, the beautiful Louise Vilhardouin whom he once rescued from suicide, but he also reveres the Legion. The honor of both men, and that of the Canadian Evariste Pinard, is tested to the limits by the tension created by their loyalty to their comrades and their desire for Louise.

If you know a man who gets a come-hither look in his eye at the mention of adventure and faraway places, who needs some plastique to blow him out of this life and into some wild encounters with terrorists, madmen, and passionate women, then look no farther than this grand tale of La Legion Etrangere.

For those seeking a tale of mystery and intrigue along the lines of The DaVinci Code, Jerome R. Corsi has written The Shroud Codex (ISBN 978-1-4391-9041-8, 2010, $26), a novel which explores the riddle of the Shroud of Turin, the purported burial cloth wrapped around Christ as he lay in the tomb after his crucifixion. Here a priest, Father Paul Bartholomew, has begun to take on the wounds and appearance of the image left on the shroud. Dr. Stephen Castle, an atheist, takes Father Bartholomew as his patient and as a result finds himself in the middle of a war between believers like Father Bartholomew’s parishioners and skeptics like Professor Gabrielli, who contends that the shroud is a medieval forgery. The subjects that rise up from this conflict range from ancient pigments and dyes to speculations by physicists about the nature of reality and time, and should satisfy all those readers who love to examine the conundrums left us by the past.

The old adage that big gifts come in little packages holds true for Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life (ISBN 978-0-385-53357-7, 2010, $25). Author of such novels as The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, and Beach Music, Conroy gives us in this small, plump volume an account of his life as a reader and his love for books. Among many other topics, My Reading Life includes an account of Conroy’s beloved high school teacher, Mr. Gene Norris, whom Conroy credits with his own success as a writer; his defense of Gone With The Wind as a great novel; a hilarious put-down of Alice Walker; his love affair with the poetry of James Dickey; and his sojourn in Paris. These tales all bear the inimitable Conroy marks: sprawling, funny, touching, warmly personal.

Those of us in Western North Carolina who still hold Thomas Wolfe in high esteem and who are proud to honor his name will find Pat Conroy’s confession of debt to Wolfe particularly gratifying. Though many authors — Ray Bradbury, James Jones, Philip Roth, Jack Kerouac, and Betty Smith come immediately to mind — have praised Thomas Wolfe for the inspiration given them by his writing, Wolfe’s reputation has slipped among academics these last forty years. Pat Conroy makes no bones about his own love for Wolfe’s writing. In the twenty-five page essay on Wolfe published here, “A Love Letter To Thomas Wolfe,” Conroy tells us how Gene Norris introduced him to Look Homeward, Angel and brought him to Asheville as a student to tour Wolfe’s home. He takes to task those critics who attack Wolfe for his lack of verbal restraint and his effusive style (a criticism some make of Conroy himself). At one point in the essay, recollecting how much Wolfe’s writing meant to him as a young man, Conroy writes:

“What the critics loathed most, I loved with all the clumsiness I brought to the task of being a boy. ‘He’s not writing, idiots,’ I wanted to scream at them all. ‘Thomas Wolfe’s not writing. Don’t you see? Don’t you understand? He’s praying, you dumb sons of bitches. He’s praying.’”


The Shroud by Jerome R. Corsi. Threshold Editions, 2010. 336 pages.

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For over a decade, Dennis Lehane’s name has been synonymous with skillfully crafted crime novels. Both Mystic River and Shutter’s Island were made into blockbuster movies and Coronado contains some of the best short stories in American fiction. However, Lahane’s greatest crowd-pleaser is Gone, Baby, Gone (2007), a tension-soaked thriller that racked up an impressive number of Academy awards (Ben Afleck, Casey Afleck, Amy Ryan). Now comes the sequel, Moonlight Mile.

It is now 12 years later, and the husband and wife team of Patrick McKenzie and Angie Gennaro are married and have a precocious daughter, Gabby. However, the McKenzie’s are having serious doubts about Patrick’s future as a private investigator. In short, the work is hazardous, Boston is a high-risk location and Patrick is physically and mentally weary. In addition, the current state of the economy has both parents investigating alternative vocations. Ah, but then, a midnight phone call conjures up a past that Patrick has tried to forget.

The caller’s name is Beatrice McCready, a woman who had once hired Patrick to recover a kidnapped, 4-year-old girl named Amanda. As things turned out, Amanda had been kidnapped “for her own good” by a relative who hoped to remove her from the negligent care of a mother with a drug addiction and a criminal record. Before the entire chain of events runs its course, Patrick has memorable (and violent) encounters with pedophiles, drug lords, several psychopaths, a host of corrupt policemen and a few jaded social service workers.

In the end, Amanda is found in the home of two loving parents (who go to prison for their part in the kidnapping) and Patrick returned Amanda to the home and care of her drug-addicted mother. Patrick’s decision to do the legally correct thing by returning the child to her natural mother causes Angie to move out (she eventually returns) and leaves Patrick with a growing suspicion that the wrong people have been punished. Now, over a decade later, Amanda is missing again.

After a severe beating and several hair-raising encounters with a Russian drug lord named Yefin Molkevski (a kind of whimsical sadist), Patrick finally tracks Amanda to a small town in upstate New York. It quickly becomes evident that Amanda has not been kidnapped, but is on the run with Sophie, a pregnant girlfriend who has become a pawn in a Russian baby-smuggling racket. Instead of a frightened teenager, Patrick soon discovers that Amanda has become skilled in stealing identities and forging documents. She is also one year away from an impressive inheritance (compliments of a lawsuit against the Boston police department for their negligent handling of her original kidnapping). In order to survive, Amanda has also developed a cold, rational demeanor and an ability to deceive, defend herself and, if necessary, to kill.

As Moonlight Mile moves from one violent encounter to another, Lehane stokes the mounting tension by increasing the danger. When the Russian drug lord becomes aware of Patrick’s investigation, Yefin informs him that Angie and Gabbie will be murdered if Patrick does not do as he is told. To complicate matters further,Yefin’s boss, Kirill Borzakov and his demented wife, Violeta have decided to “adopt” Sophie’s baby. When the gunman who is sent to collect the child (newly born and named Claire) is killed in a confrontation with Amanda, Sophie and Sophie’s boyfriend, Zippo (his last name is Lighter), the two young women flee, taking the dead gunman’s backpack, which just happens to contain the Belarus Cross, a religious relic with a long, bloody history that had been acquired by Kirill. Yefin tells Patrick that they have a bargain. The Belarus Cross and the baby Claire for the lives of Angie, Gabby and Amanda.  Yeah, it is complicated.

But, let’s not forget Bubba. In all of Lahane’s novels about Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, the two detectives have a loyal friend who is muscular, psychotic and devoid of principles. When the two detectives find themselves in difficulty (about to be terrorized and/or murdered), they call Bubba, who usually arrives and departs like a stroke of lightning — a kind of deus ex machina, leaving the field littered with the carcasses of crime lords, rapists and pedophiles. Suffice it to say that Bubba is summonsed (twice) in Moonlight Mile.

Behind all of the gunfire, bloodshed and perversity in Moonlight Mile, there is a theme that dominates both this novel and Gone, Baby, Gone. It is a tragic rumination on the consequences of child abuse and neglect. Lehane’s villains are the people who engender and promote this sad state of affairs. LaHane’s graphic portraits of apathetic social workers and negligent parents are as authentic and telling as his descriptions of his villains.

Although Patrick Kenzie’s constant struggle to be “cool” is a bit irritating (speak the current jargon, play the current music, and saturate his conversation with “pop” references), he is an appealing protagonist. For the past decade, Lahane’s skill with dialogue and atmosphere have made him one of the most readable crime fiction writers. Especially pleasing is Patrick’s (Lahane’s) unabashed love of city life (street noises, venders, taxis) and his knack for depicting children. Finally, Lehane’s ability to capture a frozen moment of terror is remarkable. Moonlight Mile has an unforgettable example in the death by Acela scene in which Patrick stands on a bloody train platform with two plastic grocery bags tied on his feet, peering at what might be a human nose and marveling that an Acela, running at top speed, “doesn’t run you over, but blows you up.”

There is no doubt about it, Moonlight Mile is on a predictable track: from bestseller to the movies, outpacing any competition by a moonlight mile.

 

Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane. HarperCollins, 2010. 336 pages.

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Dying Light by Donald Hays. MacAdam/Cage, 2006. 261 pages

In recent years, I’m sure that the average reader feels intimidated by the steady onslaught of new publications that flow into the bookstores each day. (I also hear that all of this excess may cease soon as publishing houses close.) Given the sheer mass of novels, plays, poetry collections and biographies that appear each week, I am often eager for guidance. One of my favorite ploys is to ask a reader whose judgment I respect, “What are you reading these days?”

For a couple of years now, I have been asking my favorite writer, Ron Rash, and he always takes the time to give me a few titles. “Read Out Stealing Horses,” he tells me. I do and I love it. “Read Dirt Music,” he adds. “Read everything that Donald Harrington has written. Read William Gay and Cormac McCarthy.” About a month ago, he said, “Read Dying Light.” In my opinion, Ron never misses, and this time, he exceeded all expectations.

Dying Light is a collection of 10 short stories that are so beautifully crafted, I found myself deeply affected by the author’s skill. Each time, as the story concludes, the various components slide together effortlessly like the interlocking pieces of a musical instrument, a fiddle or a dulcimer. However, these stories are harsh and uncompromising in their insight. Each tale, even the comical “Private Dance,” deals with the consequences of bad decisions — lives wrecked by human frailty, obsession and betrayal.

“The Rites of Love” chronicles a passion that refuses to die — even when a football injury reduces Monty Shepherd to an invalid and his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth, marries another and has a son. The two thwarted lovers still strive to re-create their single night together. As the years pass and Monty’s health deteriorates, their bond intensifies. (The conclusion of this story is a stunner!)

In “Akerman in Eden,” a mentally unstable poet finds himself vacillating between two worlds: a motel room in Oklahoma and the sacred temple of Ophir near the river Euphrates. In the real world (the motel room), he is at the mercy of strangers who have stolen his credit cards, but without his medication, Akerman yearns to join an exotic caravan that is moving toward Eden. Akerman’s dilemma suggests that sometimes madness is preferable to reality.

Angler, the distraught protagonist of “Salvage” finds himself sitting in a hospital room with his dying wife while he yearns for a lost love — Sara, who rejected him 58 years ago. He feels compelled to leave his grieving family and drive to Sara’s home. He feels attempts to confront his lost love — now a widow with impaired hearing who lives in a junkyard. Like many of Hays’ characters, Angler is about to experience the consequences of obsession.

“Why He Did It” deals with Wilder, a doting father who takes desperate steps to assure his son’s future. Realizing that the daughter of the woman he has married has fallen in love with his son, Justin (thereby posing a threat to Justin’s college career), Wilder devises a plan that will assure his son’s future. It works, but it has unforeseen and tragic results.

Three of the stories in this collection, “Redemption,” “Material” and “Dying Light” deal with commonplace domestic dramas: abandonment, deceit and the belated (but sincere) need for forgiveness.

Frank Wheeler cannot forgive his father for abandoning his mother and broods about it continually. When the penitent father returns (with a young wife) eager to make amends, Frank (much like Wilder in “Why He Did It”) devises a scheme to render justice and protect the innocent. It works, but it places the vindictive son forever beyond the pale of redemption.

When Harper, the elderly creative writing instructor, is caught in an affair with Erin, one of his students, he confesses his adultery and assumes responsibility for the tragic consequences. However, after his wife divorces him, and Erin moves to Paris and becomes a successful writer (who has written a series of sensational stories based on her affair with Harper), he realizes that he has been “material” for Erin’s novel. Erin has heeded his quote from Henry James, “A writer is one on whom nothing is lost.”

This collection’s title, Dying Light, comes from Hays’ final short story which, despite the somber setting, qualifies as a tale that acquires a kind of redemptive beauty. Bud McMahon is dying, and as the cancer spreads in his throat he bargains with the radiologists for two more months of life. In that interim, he starts smoking again, and is reunited with his son (an artist who paints his father’s portrait). As the dying Bud sits watching the sunset, he thinks, “Still, the sun — an old glory of dying light. It is beautiful. It is almost enough.”

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Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx. Simon & Schuster, 2008. 240 pages.

When critics attempt to define Annie Proulx’ writing style, they invariably use adjectives like “visceral” and “gritty.” Without question, she is the master of a method that blends dark humor, tragic bleakness and lyricism. Common sense suggests that these qualities appear incompatible — yet readers who laugh at the behavior of her eccentric/venal/callow characters also thrill at the beauty of her prose and ponder the fate of her spunky but luckless protagonists with tears in their eyes.

There are nine stories in this collection — the third in her “Wyoming Series,” and they run the gauntlet from an over-the-top urban myth (a kind of sagebrush demon that thrives on garbage and hapless cowboys) and two marvelous fantasies dealing with Satan’s management problems (Hell is becoming drab and boring) to a series of heartbreaking tales of hardships and suffering on the old frontier. Pity the thousands of newlyweds that blithely loaded a wagon (or a car) and drove into the Wyoming backcountry with visions of finding a lush Eden!

This is not a collection for the faint of heart. Even the marvelous “Family Man,” which presents a delightful caricature of a Wyoming retirement home, “The Mellowhorn,” combines humor with grim irony. The owner of the Mellowhorn believes that his elderly charges should enjoy “their last feeble years,” therefore he promotes smoking, drinking “and lascivious television programs.” There are very few males in the retirement home, but a plentitude of widows; consequently, the few “palsied men with beef jerky arms” can take their pick of “shapeless housecoats and flowery skeletons.” “Family Man” focuses on Ray Forkenbrock, who spends most of his time staring out the window and musing on the past. However, Ray dotes on his granddaughter and agrees to tell her a bit of family history. As he talks into her tape recorder, he gradually reveals a “dark family secret.” Dark it may be, but it is also hilarious.

Proulx prefaces “Them Old Cowboy Songs” with a bit of caution regarding the “frontier myth.” Many of the homesteaders who ventured into Wyoming in the 1880s “lived tough, raised a shoeless breed and founded ranch dynasties. Many more had short runs and were quickly forgotten.” Archie and Rose belong in the latter category. Archie sings impromptu ballads, loves his wife, endures daunting hardships (like being frozen to his saddle during a blizzard) and remains blissfully optimistic. Rose scratches a livelihood out of a hostile land, has a baby under daunting circumstances and waits for Archie to come home with enough “cowboying money” to start a farm. Yet, despite their stubborn persistence, this plucky couple dies tragically and miserably, leaving no trace. “Them Old Cowboy Songs” appears to be a tribute to the thousands of Wyoming’s vanquished homesteaders who fell victims to weather, hardship and starvation.

“The Great Divide” and “Testimony of the Donkey” both demonstrate that hardship and tragedy in Wyoming are not restricted to the 19th century. When Helen and Hi Acorn become victims of a 1920’s real estate scam that leaves them stranded on a sterile hilltop, they try to struggle on. When farming proves to be disastrous, Hi resorts to joining a dangerous venture — capturing wild horses with an old friend named Fenk. (Proulx has a knack for colorful names.) Belatedly, Hi discovers that the horses are destined for a dog food plant, and his life goes downhill from there. Catlin and Marc, an environmentally aware couple in “Testimony of the Donkey,” are adept at surviving in wilderness areas and have become seasoned campers and hikers — until they have a domestic argument and Catlin ends up alone on a desolate mountain with her foot trapped in a crevice. Once more, Proulx’ natural world becomes merciless.

For those readers who admire Proulx’s ability to craft a short story masterpiece like “Brokeback Mountain,” please note that this latest collection contains another tour de force, sporting the dubious title, “Tits Up in a Ditch.” The protagonist, Dakotah Lister, embodies heart, courage and hope, like many of Proulx’s characters. Abandoned by her mother, raised by her indifferent grandparents and betrayed by her devious paramour, Sash Hicks, Dakotah absorbs each defeat and gamely gets up and goes on. Ending up in Iraq where she endures injury and additional disillusionment, she does what is unusual in Proulx fiction: she survives.

(Gary Carden is a storyteller and writer from Sylva whose honors include winning the Brown-Hudson Folklore Award from the North Carolina Folklore Society and the Book of the Year award from the Appalachian Writers Association. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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William Dudley Pelley by Scott Beckman. Syracuse University Press. 269 pages.

The first time I heard the name William Dudley Pelley, a friend of mine was telling me about an Asheville-based oral history project that he had launched. He said that while he was interviewing elderly Jews in a retirement community about their lives in Asheville during the 1930s, one of the participants exclaimed, “I remember watching that SOB Pelley marching with his Silver Shirts down Charlotte Street!” When my friend asked him who he was talking about, the excited fellow rushed out of the room and returned in a few moments with a “Wanted” poster. There was a photograph of Pelley, bedecked in his silver shirt, a dapper little man in a Van Dyke beard. Beneath the photo was an impressive list of charges, including fraud, sedition and “Un-American activities.”

Scott Beckman’s biography of Pelley might prove to be something of a revelation for the American public who remember his well-publicized trials (Washington, North Carolina and Indiana courts). Charged with sedition by the Martin Dies Committee (Un-American Activities committee of Congress) for his racist and anti-Semitic activities, Pelley was denounced, reviled and finally imprisoned. By the 1950s, the nationally known “Asheville Fascist and Madman,” was not only forgotten, his life and his writings seemed to have virtually vanished without a trace.

After his death in 1965, family members and devoted followers made some notable attempts to restore Pelly’s badly damaged reputation by reissuing some of his extensive (and less controversial) writings — especially those dealing with spiritualism, metaphysics and the significance of unidentified flying objects! Certainly, there is more to this man than his much-publicized Neo-Nazi activity in the 1930s.

Born in Lynn, Mass., on March 12, 1890, Pelley was the only son of a poor Methodist minister. Despite an unstable home life, William did well in school and quickly demonstrated a remarkable talent for writing. (He published his first newspaper at the age of 12 and was editing the weekly Springfield Homestead at the age of 19.) The utopian novel Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy had a profound influence on the young journalist and prompted him to write a series of articles in which he denounced churches (they did nothing to help the poor). He also repeatedly attacked capitalism and privately owned industry (which he thought should be owned by the government).

Shortly after his marriage, Pelley moved to Vermont, bought a comfortable home and incurred a number of debts. After the death of his first child, he found himself saddled with more debts (medical expenses), and turned to writing fiction as a means of supplementing his salary. He was good at it. Not only did he become solvent, he quickly developed a reputation as a promising young writer. During the next decade, he published more than 200 short stories and won several prestigious awards, including the O’Henry Award in 1920.

Emboldened by his luck with magazine fiction, Pelley tried his luck with film scripts. Again, he was successful and wrote numerous scripts for the silent film industry, becoming a close friend of the actor Lon Chaney, “the man of a thousand faces.” However, it is during his sojourn in Hollywood that Pelley developed a bitter resentment of Jewish studio moguls. As time went on, Pelley’s anger hardened into a form of anti-Semitism that was so intense it would become a major component of his social and political life.

On a trip to Russia and Japan, sponsored by the Methodist Episcopal Church (purportedly to find sites for future missions) Pelley became convinced that the world was threatened by two evils: Jews and Communism. As he traveled through Russia, Korea and Japan — parts of which had been devastated by recent wars — he became convinced that all of the misery he saw could be traced to a great Jewish-Communist conspiracy. Their ultimate goal was world dominion, and Pelley vowed that he would use his talents to rally the forces of Aryans and Christians and prepare for a holy war.

Shortly after his return to the United States, Pelly allegedly experienced a spiritual revelation that made him famous. In a pamphlet entitled “Seven Minutes in Eternity,” Pelley claimed that he was lifted from his corporal body and conversed with a “Divine Being” that revealed the future of the world to him, as well as his role In preparing for Christ’s Second Coming. Pelley claimed that he returned to his earthly form with great reluctance, but the Divine Being told him that he had a lot of work to do in Buncombe County preparing for the Apocalypse.

Pelley spent the next decade in developing a convoluted, and complex political theory, much of which he claimed was “dictated” to him by spiritual beings. Alternating between rabid rants about Jewish spies (Roosevelt was one) and social-political diatribes which defined the new era (cities would be demolished and American citizens would live in pastoral settings; blacks and Jews would be denied citizenship and would live in “restricted areas;” Pelley published hundreds of periodicals, magazines and directives. Continuing to claim to be both a telepathist and clairvoyant (he could converse with spirits and travel to heavenly spheres), he became an ardent spiritualist and often participated in séances in which he claimed to converse with Jesus, Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington (who told Pelley that he “looked forward to shaking his hand someday.”) In conjunction with all of this, he launched a political-military organization called the Silver Legion of America (based in Asheville) and sought to align himself with Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany.

When the Dies Committee convened in Washington in 1939, many witnesses noted that the atmosphere bordered on paranoia. At the time there were several hundred “suspect” organizations that received subpoenas, many of which were far more militant and “un-American” than William Dudley Pelley. However, the Silver Shirt leader’s belligerence (he had ignored the initial summons) and his repeated attacks on Roosevelt and the “Jew Deal” sparked considerable anger from the Committee members. He was sentenced to 15 years and his property was confiscated. Despite numerous appeals, he remained in prison until 1950.

Pelley died on July 1, 1965. Since he had been enjoined against indulging in political affairs after his release from prison, he spent the last 15 years of his life promoting a spiritual/metaphysical organization called Soulcraft. Still an avid séance participant (and a clairvoyant), he allegedly spent much of his last years in conversing with Nostradamus, the 16th century seer and physician. According to Pelley, the two men had much in common.

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Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. New York Review of Books, 1960 reissued 2007. 274 pages.

For those of us who truly love books, our greatest pleasures are often derived from discovering the “neglected classics” — remarkable books that somehow manage to pass under our personal radar. In the great deluge of novels that have flooded this country for the past 50 years, it is not surprising to discover that many distinguished works were published with little or no fanfare — they fade quietly, unnoticed by either the critics or the media.

Well, it is gratifying to learn that somebody noticed John Williams and lifted his three novels (Butcher’s Crossing, Stoner and Augustus) from obscurity. (The New York Review of Books is devoted to finding “lost or missed” classics). Although the Denver-based author of Butcher’s Crossing died in 1994, his works are being re-evaluated (and critically acclaimed). Almost 50 years after their publication, his works continue to attract attention. Current critics compare Butcher’s Crossing to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and graduate students are finding the novels of John Williams on their required reading lists.

Butcher’s Crossing is a western. The setting is the 1870s when Will Andrews arrives in the raw and primitive town of Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas. A Harvard graduate and a fervent admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Andrews is on a spiritual quest. He wants to encounter Nature in its most brutal aspect (“bloody in tooth and claw”) so that he can merge, or “become One” with it.

Essentially, this is the clichéd beginning of a hundred potboilers: the eastern “tenderfoot” confronts a daunting “rites of passage,” but his innate courage and moral principles enables him to survive. He emerges hardened and confident, ready to take his place among the stalwart natives of the rugged west.

However, Will Andrews is destined to encounter a dark and brutal world that bears no resemblance to Emerson’s precepts. His six-month ordeal as a member of a buffalo hunting party not only change his perceptions of the natural world; it also affords him with the dubious opportunity to experience a dark and mindless violence that has much in common with Joseph Conrad’s descent into the heart of darkness.

When Andrews arrives in Butcher’s Crossing, he makes the belated discovery that the great buffalo hunts are virtually over. (The fashion craze in the East for buffalo coats has diminished and customers are complaining about the “smell that they can’t get rid of.”) The surrounding prairie is littered with thousands of bone piles that the local farmers are slowly converting to fertilizer. However, by chance, he meets Miller, a buffalo hunter who tells him of a remote valley in Colorado where an enormous herd grazes peacefully. Using his inheritance, Andrews offers to finance a hunting expedition, on the condition that he is included in the party.

Thus begins a journey into an immense wilderness; yet it is a transitory world that is forever altered by the passage of these men who seem to have a desire to destroy everything they see. In addition to Miller and Andrews, the hunting party includes Charlie Hoge, a one-handed alcoholic with a penchant for quoting scripture, and Fred Schneider, an angry, taciturn man who glares at world around him with contempt. Hoge is a gifted cook and driver; Schneider is a skinner. Miller promises that they will return with several thousand hides — enough to make them all wealthy.

The journey is memorable. The author’s ability to describe natural phenomena, a terrifying snowstorm, thirst, drought and the immensity of the natural world is remarkable. However, I feel that John Williams’ real purpose is to demolish the “myth of the West.” The author does not describe a primitive world where men are ennobled by travail and hazardous encounters. Instead, he takes his tenderfoot to the brink of an abyss where he glimpses the mindless and destructive violence in his own heart.

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