After running into numerous critical references to this little novel, which has won a series of international awards and has been published in nineteen countries and made into a popular film, curiosity got the best of me, so I ordered a copy from Amazon ($4.80). When it arrived, I was especially pleased by the cover, and as soon as I could crank up my Keurig coffeemaker I was ready for an amazing journey.
Each time Stephen King is interviewed, he finds himself responding to the same question: “Where do you get your ideas?” Usually, the question is prompted by the questioner implying that an author who writes about serial killers and psychotics must be as twisted and devious as the subjects that he writes about. King always responds with some variation of the following: His ideas come from Fox News and CNN; the New York Times and Time magazine.
I have always been something of a fanatic about graphic novels and my collection includes Maus (which depicts the holocaust — with cats as Nazis and mice as Jews — and the two-volume set of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which is a memoir of the author’s childhood growing up during the Islamic Revolution. I also have a badly-worn copy of Alan Moore’s In Hell which is one of the most remarkable books I have ever encountered. I also have several boxes full of “undergrounds,” which are the true forerunners of the modern graphic novel. Many of them are graphic American “histories” by artists like Jack Jackson (Jaxon) and R. Crumb. Admittedly, I rarely run into people who share my appreciation for these guys.
Since I happen to love folklore and storytelling, I have always felt blessed to be a resident of Jackson County. Sitting on my front porch, I can see Black Rock, where a local law officer vanished 80 years ago while on a fox hunt. He has not been found to this day. I can see the Pinnacle, which in my childhood was supposed to be Judaculla, the slant-eyed giant of Cherokee folklore who is sleeping now. You can still make out his profile from the parking lot of the new library.
If you love epic tales that celebrate the American West; if you treasure novels like Trail of the Lonesome Dove, Edna Ferber’s So Big (Giant) and McCarthy’s Cities on the Plain, you might want to saddle up for Peace Like a River. Everything that quickens your heartbeat is here: manhunts, vicious killers, snowstorms, relentless law men, lovable outlaws, tall tales, all wrapped in a bit of Mark Twain’s “heading for the territories.”
I have always been drawn to authors who can seize your attention in the first paragraph and like a pit bull, refuse to let you go. Ron Rash can do that (Serena). So can Philipp Meyer (The Son). These guys are so good, they can set the hook and play you the way a seasoned fisherman handles a trout, (Whoa, that is a mixed metaphor, I guess!) for 40 pages, forcing you to abandon chores and your social life, intent on riding out what the critics call “a riveting narrative.” Well, here is another one. Let me summarize the beginning of The Kept by James Scott.
In recent years, I have developed a growing discomfort with the Internet. Services like Facebook, Amazon, Linked-in have become increasingly ... well, personal. They want to know how I am doing, mentally and physically (at times they sound like a nosy, well-meaning relative), and I am constantly being asked to take “quickie” surveys or to rate everything from Netflix movies to Amazon products. I am beginning to wonder at what point does their concern become intrusive.
Early in this novel, an old retired teacher with Alzheimer’s, mistaking a visitor for his son, gives the young man a copy of a novel by Charles Brockton Brown and suggests that he read it. The novel is Wieland (1798,) a peculiar concoction of bizarre events that is considered the first “American gothic novel.” (I remember that it contains an account of human spontaneous combustion, murders, violent storms and inexplicable voices, insanity and mistaken identities).
Russell Banks knows how to hook the reader’s interest. In the opening pages of Lost Memory of Skin, the book’s protagonist (known only as “The Kid”) enters the public library in Calusa (Miami) and asks the woman at the desk if she would help him find some information. She agrees and he asks if it is true that people who are called “sexual deviants” are on the Internet program along with their photo and their addresses.
Some 30 years ago, a science-fiction writer named Whitney Striber wrote a novel called Wolfen, and it frightened me badly. The basic premise was that humanity had no purpose other than to provide a dependable food source for a terrifying species called “wolfen” that lived in colonies beneath the earth and only surfaced to feed. For thousands of years, these reptilian wolves lived silently in the sewers of major cities. They could move with astonishing speed and only “harvested” human victims who were never missed. It made a decent movie, too.