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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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..)

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..)

“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.

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