NewPages Book Reviews

March 27, 2008

In a Bear's Eye :: Without Wax :: Master of Reality :: Modern Life :: Our Aperture :: Teller Tales: Histories :: Yes, Yes, Cherries :: The Melancholy Fate of Captain Lewis

In a Bear’s Eye

Yannick Murphy

Dzanc Books, February 2008

ISBN-10: 0979312310

ISBN-13: 978-0979312311

Paperback: 139pp; $13.95

Review by Matt Bell

Twenty years after her first short story collection, Yannick Murphy returns to the form with In a Bear’s Eye, the follow-up book to her highly acclaimed 2007 novel Signed, Mata Hari. The stories contained within are spare and elegant, most clocking in at no more than four or five pages.

Fair warning: This is not the kind of fiction that holds the reader’s hand. The clues Murphy’s narrators leave behind do lead eventually to the heart of her stories, but even then they are more like trails of breadcrumbs than handwritten maps. Still, persistent readers will be rewarded with a book that eventually reveals a treasure trove of tiny, graceful moments filled with love and hope, chances for redemption, and rebirth.

The title story (which was selected for The O’Henry Prize Stories 2007 anthology) concerns a widow and her son struggling with their grief following the husband’s suicide. The boy is playing by a pond close to their home while a bear stalks through the apple trees nearby. Armed with her husband’s quailing gun, the mother stalks closer and closer, reliving her memories of her husband with every step she takes toward the bear. Murphy’s description of the husband’s suicide is particularly poignant:

He walked into the ocean one day and he did not stop walking. She liked to think he was still walking under the water. Skates stirred up sand and rose to the surface as he walked by them. Water entered his shirt cuffs and his shirt back ballooned. She and her boy sometimes talked about it. Her boy said how the hair on his head must be floating up and wavering like the long leaves of sea plants. Her boy said how his father must be reaching out to the puffer fish, wanting to see them change into prickly balls. His father must be touching everything as he walks, the craggy sides of mouths of caves where groupers lurk and roll their eyes, the white gilled undersides of manta rays casting shadow clouds above him. “My father must be in China by now,” the boy said to his mother.

The method of the husband’s watery suicide multiplies the mother’s anxiety at seeing her son trapped between the twin dangers of the pond and the bear. As she begins running across the field, the story follows suit, moving from meditation to conclusion in only a few paragraphs, fast enough for readers to feel the rush of adrenaline in the mother’s veins but long enough for the narrator and her boy to be suddenly healed, for the bear to transform from a sign of danger to a symbol of protection.

Elsewhere, Murphy continues to tap into similar veins of families, marriages, communities. In “Pan, Pan, Pan,” a family vacation is marred by a plane crash that is constantly on the news and coming up in conversation. The family’s young son obsesses over the crash, repeating the pilot’s last distress call over and over. The mother, worried for her son, becomes obsessed herself, but in such a way that the crash eventually represents all the dangers that might await her boy. When he briefly disappears, she runs wildly into the nearby lake looking for him, until she sees an owl flying overhead. She reveals a whole slew of emotions in that single sighting, saying, “It was just an owl, but for a moment I thought it was my son. He was all right. He had grown wings. He was safe. Already I was dealing with his death.”

Other notable stories include “Whitely on the Tips,” about a reclusive man who is suddenly thrust into the lives of his neighbors when a tree in a bordering yard is cut down, revealing the movements of the entire street to his living room window, and “Delaware,” a flash fiction about a man with his father’s ashes stuck on his shoe after throwing the rest off of a cliff.

If In a Bear’s Eye doesn’t reveal all of its secrets at first glance, it is perhaps only because those secrets are so important, so deeply rooted in who we are as individuals and as parts of our larger communities. Murphy’s writing trades ease of reading for depth of feeling, trusting us to be patient as she leads us to the locked door at the center of her stories, as she shows us which key to use to unlock the mysteries within. In the end, that is what she is offering us: mysteries in the deepest sense, universalities already written permanently upon our hearts. Yannick Murphy’s greatest gift as a writer is not just the way she reminds us of these feelings, but also the way she reassures us that they are still true.

 

Without Wax coverWithout Wax

A documentary novel by William Walsh

Casperian Books, March 2008

ISBN-10: 1-934081-01-9

ISBN-13: 978-1-934081-01-3

Paperback: 228pp; $15.00

Reviewed by Josh Maday

William Walsh’s debut novel, Without Wax, is the story of Wax Williams, legendary male porn star and “the 8th wonder of the world,” whose shy, down-to-earth demeanor endears him to female fans while also making him accessible to male fans. Dissatisfied with (and even afraid for) his life, Wax decides to retire at the pinnacle of his career. In keeping with documentary form and style, Walsh weaves together interview fragments, traditional narrative, depositions, Consumer Profiles, and the script of Wax’s first feature film. The novel is structured in such a way that is entertaining and compulsively readable, getting as close to watching its filmic incarnation as the written word will allow.

When Walsh’s characters talk sex, they are talking shop. They have no romantic illusions about their work: they are producing a product – in the same way other film makers aim to elicit a certain reaction from their audience, characters like Lyle Mammon try to produce footage that will make viewers horny. At one point Wax Williams says to a man selling sex-surveillance tapes of unwitting participants, “This stuff isn’t really pornography. . . . It’s not porno or erotica if the folks involved aren’t trying to make something pornographic or erotic. It’s just sex, and that’s nothing to look at.”

Walsh seems to have done his homework, but this novel is more than simply a show and tell of interesting facts and jargon inside the adult entertainment industry. Wax’s story is interesting, amazing, sad, and funny – a very American success story built on a misunderstanding. Again and again the characters attempt to explain the real Wax Williams.

TED ROMLING: Wax must have seen plainly that a career in pornography was the best possible option for him. He might be a sideshow attraction all his life, but that would have to do. He accepted it. A high school guidance counselor might have read Wax as a bright kid with below-average social skills. But I feel that this was a position that Wax adopted rather than a skill deficit. Wax played shy, reserved, constantly half-embarrassed, while at the same time above-it-all. He played it that way because he thought it was the best way to play it—or maybe it was the only way he could play it. Anyway, to Mammon, the boy was an enigma.

While it would have been easy to make Wax Williams some sort of mindless animal or heartless chauvinist, Walsh avoids this cliché and creates a character whose depth and complexity balances perfectly against the shallow façade of life in porn. Even with fame and money, Wax’s loneliness still haunts him, reducing him to a ghost living inside his own body. Wax is asked more than once what it’s like to see himself having sex on TV and he says, “It’s like putting on a mask and looking in a mirror.” Even Todd Insulin, the “PhD Candidate at Wadsworth University, Studying Group Behavior in Erotic Situations,” says, “Wax wore a mask of sorts when he performed, and he was sure to never let anyone see underneath that mask.” The most moving parts of the novel are when the reader gets those privileged glimpses behind that mask.

William Walsh succeeds on every level, entertaining while demonstrating his astute knowledge of the way people talk, act, and hide behind their words and actions. Without Wax is endlessly fascinating and compulsively readable. With the line between fiction and reality nearing extinction, and with the continuous, exponential improvements in CGI, the book has to compete more and more with cinema. While some writers bemoan the book’s perpetual slide into antiquity, William Walsh has stepped up to the challenge, bringing book and film together with effects that reach far beyond a theme that may seem like a mere marketing gimmick to create a fantastic debut novel.

 

Master of Reality coverMaster of Reality

John Darnielle

Continuum Books, April 2008

ISBN-10: 0826428991

ISBN-13: 978-0826428998

Paperback: 144pp; $10.95

Review by Matt Bell

As the singer and songwriter of the indie rock band The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle has often been called a “literary” rocker, thanks to the great lyrics contained in the approximately four hundred songs produced by that band. Whether listening to lo-fi productions of his earlier career or the more musically complex John Vanderslice-produced records he’s done with 4AD, the focus of Darnielle’s fans has always been on his lyrics and the stories contained within. Now he’s stepped off the stage and sat down at the typewriter to deliver Master of Reality, his first novel and a stunning piece of rock criticism and appreciation.

Like all of the books in the 331/3 series by Continuum, Master of Reality concerns itself with a single album, in this case the 1971 Black Sabbath release of the same name. Rather than take a straightforward non-fiction approach to the material, Darnielle has instead chosen to write an epistolary novel set in 1985 and narrated by Roger, a sixteen-year-old who finds himself in a juvenile mental institution after a suicide attempt. At the beginning of the story, Roger has been stripped of his Walkman and his tapes, including Master of Reality, his favorite album. Forced to keep a diary by a member of the hospital’s staff named Gary (to whom much of the book is addressed), he almost immediately begins pleading for his music, claiming that “If I had my tapes they would help me. I can really figure things out when I am listening to my tapes, otherwise I get so distracted.”

Darnielle’s strong abilities as a narrative songwriter instantly kick in as he nails Roger’s voice from page one. Roger is inexperienced and angry, and keenly aware of the us vs. them dynamic of not only the hospital but also the outer world. Arrayed against him are his mother and stepfather, who put him in the hospital, his teachers who don’t understand him, and, most presently, the staff at the hospital, and especially Gary. His side is lonelier. Trapped in the hospital, he makes few friends, relying instead on himself, his diary, and his obsession with Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath. Screaming the songs to himself under his pillows, he finds the strength to keep fighting. Writing about what each song means to him, he begins to understand himself and what will always separate him from Gary and his parents and the others:

I guess I better just get the first song out of the way because you are gonna find out about it anyway. I wish Black Sabbath had put this song at the end of the album so I could talk about it later! I could probably just save it for after some of the other songs but I don’t want you to think I am trying to fool you. Unlike you people I have a policy that I always tell the truth first and then if people don’t like it well then at least I can say that I was honest.

The biggest accomplishment here is the weaving of the rock criticism into the narrative in a way that is not only seamless but also essential to the story’s progression. Roger’s obsession with Master of Reality is, in many ways, the plot of the book. As the voice in the book matures, so does the level of criticism, taking us from first impression onwards through a final summation of the album’s worth to both the music world and Roger’s life. Fans of Darnielle’s heavy metal blog Last Plane to Jakarta won’t be surprised at the quality of his observations or the wit with which he delivers them, but newcomers will be pleased by both the quality of his insights and of the prose itself.

Readers are likely to come to Master of Reality from a variety of backgrounds. Some will come as Mountain Goats fans wanting to see Darnielle tackle a novel, others as Black Sabbath fans wanting to read about a favorite album. Some will simply be fans of the cult-popular 331/3 series, which has now grown to dozens of books, yet kept its level of quality very high. Hopefully, there will be others who will pick it up as novel first, because it truly is a first-rate story, full of moments that will pluck at your heartstrings as you’re brought back to the moment you first fell in love with a piece of music, when an album provided not just the soundtrack to your life but also the meaning behind it. If, by some strange chance, none of this happens, well, you’re probably going to at least dust off your old Sabbath vinyl, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.

 

Modern Life coverModern Life

Poems by Matthea Harvey

Graywolf Press, October 2007

ISBN-10: 1555974805

ISBN-13: 978-1555974800

Paperback; 80pp; $14.00

Review by Roy Wang

Like the mysterious dominoes that grace the cover suggest, Matthea Harvey’s poetry collection Modern Life deals surprise and gambles sentiment, tossing out disjointed associations with such daring that only the most careful reading will unravel the whole chain of implication. Harvey puts her strongest, most readable poems in the center, creating a core of potential energy to propel the reader through the peculiar, disorienting landscapes still to come. The strategy pays off, giving the book both symmetry and a needed respite from her more difficult works.

“Implications for Modern Life” announces the book’s ambition with its jump cuts, invocations, prose-like typesetting, and outrageously obvious alliterations and rhymes. It’s also a beginner piece to her puzzles, challenging our modern comfort. In fact, our dissociation from the realities of consumption seems much graver than any cognitive gymnastics the poet may be employing. But the poet is present also, allaying that same guilt through lament, before realizing empowerment can only come after admission.

The pillars of Modern Life are two sets of abecedarian-like poems, “The Future of Terror,” and “Terror of the Future.” To generate them, Harvey selected words from her dictionary in the same place as “future” and “terror” and on the pages in between. They examine the strangeness that might arise from trying to find physical and mental security while miming life in a post-apocalyptic police state. The first set involves a good deal of consequence and action, which, coupled with Harvey’s capacity for the absurd, recalls Beckett:

They were informers all right.
Eventually we put them in a kayak and sent them
off down the river without the key word,
which despite their loquaciousness, they’d never
guess. Plus there were magnetic mines
in the river and theirs was a metal boat.

The second set, returning from “t” to “f”, has a more personal note, and one fewer than the first set, highlighting the impossibility of absolute symmetry:

The radio said we needed to repeople.
…—I professed
the principles of capillary attraction,
made you a plaster-of-Paris statue of a peacock,
wrote hundreds of haiku. The odds on you
loving me were a thousand to one, but there you were

Halving and the deception of symmetry have strong current in this collection, an example of what happens when Harvey’s meditations on simple ideas take her farther than most people find convenient.

The previously released Robo-boy series represents the most sustained focus, and perhaps the best of her fantastical realism:

Like most parents who adopt robots, / his fast-forwarded through his first three years / ….In his first real memory (a whispered, / “Honey, should we know how to turn him off, just in case?”) their / faces ripple like ponds disturbed by giant fish fighting beneath the / surface before they settle into twin grins.

The jarring and heavy poetic devices evidenced throughout highlight the artificiality she seeks to address, feeding machine-code tickertape to the ear. This is good in theory, but ultimately breaks down in practice. Harvey knows the reason too, as it drives the very poems she writes: we are not machines. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the age that a poet should feel the need to bludgeon us so, but more restraint will likely reap better reward in the future.

In all, the most striking quality of this collection is its daring. Harvey includes a two-line poem (You have my eyes / Give them back.), plays twenty-one word games with conspicuous non-skill, and leaves the reader stranded in a swamp of disjoint images. The holy grail of sustaining coherence through such a sequence is still out there, and if Matthea Harvey doesn’t fully succeed, she is perhaps much closer than the rest of us.

 

Our Aperture coverOur Aperture

Ander Monson

New Michigan Press, January 2008

ISBN-13: 978-1-934832-03-5

Paperback: 33pp; $8.00

Review by Matt Bell

In some ways, Ander Monson’s new chapbook Our Aperture finds the writer up to his familiar tricks. Like his fiction and his essays, Monson’s poems are elegiac in mood, mourning the losses of old lovers and dead friends even as they pine for obscure shampoo ingredients and virtual realities. He concentrates his energies on lists of objects and failing technologies, on relics of recent memories, on complaints against the loved ones who once owned and inhabited the things and places that make up a life.

The shortest poem, “Methylchloroisothiazolinone,” serves as an excellent introduction to Monson’s writing and to his particular brand of elegy:

Strange reagent, neatly tucked
in bottles of Suave, Finesse
that my sister’s ghost still uses
to keep her hair rich and free
in the wind that rarely deigns
to pick up strands and gloss them,
toss them outwards in a sphere,
add kinetic energy
to the scalp’s potential for it – home
to the ghosts of roots; home
to the roots of those ghosts.

Compact and concise, “Methylchloroisothiazolinone” nonetheless contains a small ice chip of sadness perfectly preserved in this memory of a lost sister. Our Aperture is full of moments like this, where a tangible object is used to invoke both a shared, communal moment and also a specific emotional memory. It is a gutsy move to assume that these lists of objects will carry as much weight for us as they do for him, but more often than not it succeeds in invoking exactly the emotion the rest of the poem tells us it should. This is heartbreaking stuff, masterfully done, and a joy to read.

The personas speaking through these poems are frequently plagued with survivor’s guilt and lover’s remorse. Left behind as friends and lovers move on to better lives or else early deaths, these narrators ache longingly across great distances of space, time, and emotion. In “Elegy for Beotch,” Monson closes by railing against such layers of separation:

You think you’re something separate from the whorl,
a gleaming satellite, affixed above
all our dreams, but you’re the undeveloped
photographs that persist past memory
in our disposable cameras. What you
don’t know is this: all the world is filtered
light and trash beneath the bleachers; all the world
is tilt and crash and power loss (though let’s come
out this one time and call it love) and circumstance, or:
all the world is interruption, terrorface in gaslight,
just before it bursts.

Like this poem, much of Monson’s work acknowledges distance while also craving connection, creating a fine tension that seems to be as constant a part of his poetry as anything else. This is fast-moving anxious work, each poem a piling up of objects towards a critical mass that can only lead to either explosion or implosion. Monson knows just how to excite the senses with a deluge of details, then suddenly switch to stark stillness in moments that evoke love, loss, and transformation. The book ends with exactly this sort of glorious image, in “Any Vanishing Point Is As Good As This”:

the eye sees patterns where there are none—
rods and cones, the retina’s detritus,
or constellations, brain-imprinted from
too long staring backyard at the stars
in hopes of astronaut and launch, freeze-dried
food and the gentle rush of Tang, half-hopes
of the family viewed only from above
at such a distance that love disappears.

In the last three years, Monson has released three books in three genres, each ambitiously interconnected to the others and each the kind of major work that immediately establishes a writer’s reputation. By contrast, Our Aperture is the literary equivalent of a tour-only EP released by a favorite band, destined to be a rarity celebrated by a smaller, core readership. By virtue of being a chapbook, this is less likely to achieve the kind of status his earlier releases have, but that doesn’t make it any less essential. There is more here than the slim thirty pages might suggest, and those lucky enough to read it will find plenty to tide them over until Monson’s next full-length book.

 

Teller Tales: Histories coverTeller Tales: Histories.

Jo Carson

Ohio University Press, April 2007

ISBN-10: 0821417541

ISBN-13: 978-0821417546

Paperback: 138pp; $29.95

Review by Donna J. Essner

In the tradition of Southern oral storytelling style, Jo Carson writes her stories for telling aloud. Teller Tales: Histories, her newest book, carries on this almost lost art of speaking and of handing down the history created by previous generations. According to Carson, both stories, “What Sweet Lips Can Do,” and “Men of Their Time,” were originally written to be performed. Unlike many other traditional texts that recount American historical events, Teller Tales is a narration, a performance of two stories wrapped around the American Revolutionary War. Neither monotonous nor mundane, Teller Tales reads as if the narrators are standing on a stage, talking, reminiscing, throwing laughable tidbits, and handing down what they know about the events that helped shape the America we know today.

Jam-packed with one-liners reminiscent of the comedic straight man and his sidekick, two stereotypical, Southern comrades share what they know of a people, specifically the Overmountain men and the turn of events that was pivotal in shaping the outcome of the American Revolution. More bits than pieces of some lesser known facts and players are thrown in amongst the details.

The most mundane details are found in “What Sweet Lips Can Do,” during a “long and complicated” narration about the long rifle which lends its name to the story. One Mountain man, Robert Young, named his gun Sweet Lips for his wife, Mary, explaining, "I like to think she was honored by that.

The performance begins, “These are the times that try men's souls,” because “patriots had had themselves a tea party in Boston in 1773,” and “King George of England [who] didn't want to lose any empire... sent those sons across the big water to teach those New World miscreants a lesson.” Carson's most engaging strength is her use of the casual, comically irreverent sidebars between the two speakers. This comical irreverence is heightened by the shortened quips of each speaker. In a style indicative of a theatre production, the banter between the narrators maintains a steady, almost poetic stream of consciousness. And just when the instruction becomes cumbersome, the banter between performers becomes laughable as one throws in a ringer:

"The British army pitched their tents."
"Each of Ferguson's redheaded mistresses had her own separate tent,"
"and in the manner of the British army, he set his cooks about dinner."
"He's sort of an early RV‑style camper, isn't he?"

The unexpected catches you off guard, a technique which is woven throughout both stories. Carson allows these two knowledgeable historians – comfortable comrades – to finish the phrase, the sentence, even the thought for the other without forethought or embarrassment. In so doing, we are exposed to yet another version, another truth, another twist on history. Like any good poet, Carson knows the power of white space on a page. Teller Tales, a mere 138 pages in length, is laden with history, yet the pages at times seem almost sparse, making for a quick read. This sparseness, however, does not mean the stories are empty of content.

“What Sweet Lips Can Do,” intertwines the history of the men, the women, even the muskets and the making of gun powder into the mix. “Men of Their Times” threads Cherokee war chief Dragging Canoe into its story, telling how he and his people affected the outcome of the Revolutionary War. Carson doles out other little known facts, like how the matrilineal society of the Cherokee contrasted and contributed to American history.

Coupled with white space, Carson's inclusion of theatrical intermissions between scenes provides an additional breather for the audience and reader. These visual line stops allow the reader to not only take in the history that has been shared, but allow for ease in referring back to what has been read.

Whether you are an American history buff, or whether you enjoy narrative Southern storytelling reminiscent of Mark Twain, Teller Tales will not only teach, but entertain.

 

Yes, Yes, CherriesYes, Yes, Cherries.

Stories by Mary Otis

Tin House Books, April 2007

ISBN-10: 0977698904

ISBN-13: 978-0977698905

Paperback: 210pp; $12. 95

Review by Janet Cannon

“Beverly puts words in jail. She hunts and traps them, stuffs them into little black boxes. Crosswords.” This quote from the beginning of Mary Otis' short story “Picture Head” illustrates not only Otis’ skill with language, but also one of the over arcing themes in her first short story collection Yes, Yes, Cherries: the complacent trap we as humans must break out of if we are to live our life happily and completely.

The character Allison, recurring in four of the stories, is a prime example of someone trying to escape the undesirable and boring patterns of her life. Whether she is writing inside her shoes with markers to build up her self-esteem, lamenting her inability to communicate her feelings with her husband, or trying to break away from the expectations of her doting mother and overly dramatic aunt, everything she does radiates the need for her to participate in her life rather than let it live around her passively.

Other lost women in Yes, Yes, Cherries include Brenda, who does not own a watch but is constantly worried about the hours and days of her life slipping away; Julie, a prepubescent young woman who allows a foster brother to touch her intimately because she feels this will make him happy, not because she enjoys it; Molly, a mistress who searches the internet for self-definition; Delia, wants to live only on air because she feels fleshy desires are inherently evil; and Louise, who goes from living with a drug addict to working for the Russian mafia but does not understand why either one is dangerous.

A recurring theme in these stories is the personal consequences, both for good and ill, of illegal, immoral, or inappropriate behavior. Although the narrator never judges the characters, the plots show the progression of how one choice can lead to another: Allison’s teenage desire to be intimate with the married man next door lead her to an unfulfilling life of always choosing the wrong man. Brenda’s imagined relationship to someone she met for five minutes allows her to see how her current relationship would never work. Molly’s boring affair and subsequent friendship with the betrayed wife helps her decide to take control of her own life and leave Henry. And Delia’s bonfire of the contents of her mother’s kitchen shows how an obsession with an unattainable goal destroys a person’s spirit.

One of Otis’ strengths lies in her ability to describe the emotional picture behind a scene, often choosing an unusual metaphor or simile to describe an everyday feeling: Clayton’s childish sense that he would one day be the “Boy with the Most Remembered Things in His Head” because when he thought of a word for exactly four seconds, he never forgot it; how the car that hit Allison’s simply appeared out of nowhere “as if it had popped up from a trapdoor in the road”; and how, when seeing the bonfire in her back yard, Anne was in such deep shock that she could not recognize her neighbors except as "Person Red Scarf, Person Bare Chest, [and] Person White Pants."

A possible weakness of the stories is their tendency to have an open or unfinished ending. How did the cat, Mr. Teddy die? Did Delia die in the fire? Perhaps, however, it is the author’s intent for her stories to imitate life in the sense that there are no pat endings, and some things are never known. For readers who desire a story with a strong closure, the endings of most of these stories will leave them with an unfulfilled ache.

Yes, Yes, Cherries contains ten short stories, some previously published and two already having won awards. It is a fairly quick read, but must be reread for understanding of some of the deeper subtleties of meaning.

 

Melancholy Fate of Captain Lewis coverThe Melancholy Fate
of Captain Lewis

Michael Pritchett

Unbridled, November 2007

ISBN: 9781932961416

Hardcover: 416pp; $24.95

Review by Cyan James

Meriwether Lewis can’t achieve death, much less the Northwest Passage. And his modern counterpart, Bill Lewis, can’t connect with himself, let alone the students he’s trying to instruct. Bill is simply stymied by his own life, and the suicidal end of Meriwether’s.

Why do people kill themselves at all? Can we ever get beyond dreams and learn to find contentment in the cold comfort of reality? Hard questions, these, but novelist Michael Pritchett doesn’t hesitate to raise them in his debut novel, The Melancholy Fate of Captain Lewis.

Pritchett’s novel focuses on two main characters: Captain Meriwether Lewis, the real explorer of Lewis-and-Clark fame, and Bill Lewis, a fictional English professor trying to write a book about Meriwether. You’ll soon find that the men share more than a last name – they’re both wrestling with the angel of despair, and the odds aren’t in their favor.

The novel’s a sometimes uneasy mélange of historical fiction and more modern fiction as Pritchett juggles alternate narrative threads. He shuttles between Meriwether, whose sections are rife with period language and often actual diary excerpts, and Bill’s narratives, which reflect his more prosaic, suburban existence.

Diction may challenge some readers here. While Pritchett is striving for authenticity, and the way he allows the language of nearly two centuries ago to gradually supersede Bill’s modern English is fascinating, it occasionally feels contrived.

For example, the passage “During the day, he and the men pursu’d the elk in the wood, and were dreadful, all trussed up in the skins of their quarries, with noise sticks spitting smoke and deadly cinders,” is both elegant, and a little forced.

More problematic are matters of structure and theme. The back-and-forth weave of narrative is transparent, but it’s less easy to understand why the same facts and feelings are often repeated in both Meriwether’s and Bill’s sections. This patchwork quality results in a slightly jarring déjà vu effect, though it does add layering.

Thematically the men could be kissing cousins. It’s here, the theme, where I most want to applaud Pritchett for his ambition. He’s really wading into thick stuff here, digging into depression, existential angst, fear of death and the longing for it, loneliness, and the frustrations, apparently common to both backwoods explorers weighed down by historic obligation and modern men struggling with fraying family responsibilities.

The men also share a fascination with, and for, women, particularly those already married. (One gets the sense Pritchett really means Women with a capital ‘W,’ in perhaps a salute to Sacajawea’s undoubted historic contribution, or modern feminist freedoms.) But in the end, women play more the part of sirens than comforters, and the men remain staunchly unable to attain happiness in romantic relationships. One could argue they purposely seek inappropriate women to foil themselves and confirm their own worst fears: that they explore hard wilderness alone, beyond the help of any map or wedding band. Meriwether drinks and wanders; Bill chain-smokes and neglects his pills. Both sleep roughly; neither man is eager to rise.

But it’s Bill’s compulsion to understand Meriwether that drives the action and makes us keep turning Pritchett’s pages. We, too, get caught up in the quest to understand Meriwether’s lonely mind, and along the way find ourselves intrigued by Bill.

The man can seemingly stimulate great class discussions, at least partially connect with his anorexic son, and draw interest from a multitude of women. He even manages to repair bathroom tiling, but his reason for being eludes him; he’s under the impression that the motive for Meriwether’s suicide will provide the answers to his own floundering life.

At the novel’s opening, witness Lewis’s approaching death: “Perhaps it was not too late to feel! But a nameless, bottomless thing said there was nothing. An explosion threw up colours to the west, and the sun fell into the sea, making clouds from the steam. Slowly, two worlds ground their way into each other, like lovers, and eras’d his time.” A little bathetic. Possibly too close to the bone. And not really an explanation of suicide.

But what is that motive? Do we even really want to know? And can we?

In the search for these answers you could do worse than start with The Melancholy Fate. Despite its occasionally repetitive, sometimes strained moments, Pritchett’s work holds our interest, and it’s a more than satisfying read for those in search of ambitious, literary history willing to explore the wildness around and inside our very selves.