Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Shawn Badgley, Fri., Jan. 27, 2006
by Tristan Egolf
Black Cat, 379 pp., $14 (paper)
Midway through things, Tristan Egolf’s third novel resets itself. It rests, for a spell, where it began – in the frenzied, relatively first-person cognitive processes of a wolfman – as if the author wasn’t quite sure what he had gotten himself into. It’s a break we didn’t get in Lord of the Barnyard and Skirt and the Fiddle, which, like Kornwolf, are ragged yet weighty satires concerning the various baskets and belts of landlocked America. Those, though, are narratives that panicked, hyperventilated, and eventually disappointed amid moments like the ones leading up to Egolf’s pause here. And, by pause, I mean that of perhaps a rabid Wordsworth bounding through small-town Pennsylvania in the space of an italicized page or two.
The “individual in question – variously referred to as ‘It,’ ‘The Shitbeast,’ ‘The Devil,’ ‘The Corn Dog’ and ‘Dutchies’ Revenge’” or, if you prefer, a “‘hammerheaded Nixon’” – has just “snapped from his spot at the counter and shot down the aisle, scampering – past the jukebox, over the welcome mat, out the exit and into the night,” leaving in his wake at the Dogboy bar a busted-up meddler; the busted-up meddler’s ravished girlfriend; and a stunned bunch of motorcycle toughs known as the Heathens, courtesy of whom he has just snorted a “quadruple dose” of crystal meth cut with muscle relaxant (this chasing whiskey, Valium, and “the tavern’s notoriously greasy cuisine”). A confrontation just pages earlier revealed Ephraim Bontrager as more than a mute, disillusioned, possibly lunatic Amish teen abused by his father; now, we know him as a beast willing to inflict human violence, a force outside the removed observations and myth-driven rumors of other characters. It’s almost too sudden, too explosive, and it threatens to wreck the effort.
Then, the somehow restorative pause: “startled cries from behind, diminishing. Open air ... to a plateau of aster and jimsonweed, old rusty wire on appendages, puncturing flesh – then release – a pounding inside, as of moving again ... through bullthistle, knapweed and dogbane to aorta/ventricle, hammer and anvil. Surging. Thirst and palpitations. Overload, onward ... .” Kornwolf’s plot, till this point, has come that close to overloading. It has taken on the media and organized religion while distributing significant backstory among a handful of crucial characters. It has thrived under tangents on boxing and heavy metal, withstood less expert and entertaining ones. It has brandished a lot of actual German spoken by a wolfman. And, with the tough love that some have interpreted as misanthropy in Egolf’s work, it has proven occasionally unreasonable, unwieldy, unpalatable. In short, it has had too much going on.
Egolf, who committed suicide last May, must have sensed this: He titled his subsequent, penultimate section “Bring It In,” and he does just that, taking fewer shots, as it were, but sporting a higher shooting percentage. Ephraim’s thread is pulled taut and level as others support, rather than clamor to overtake, it. Ambition diminished just a bit, we get a classic monster without excessive cliché. In turn, the novel soars – it’s funny, violent, sad, subversive, flawed, distorted, and wordy, still – its climax out of control but in the capable hands of a narrator more focused on storytelling than on social criticism and shock value.
“Nonetheless,” as a bunch of stoned Amishkind discussing the overturned patroller of a ball-gagged cop with a candle up his ass dangling from the ceiling of a barn during said climax’s Halloween party realize when they see a shape approaching, “there could be no doubt: it was Ephraim. Sure as the evening was strange. A bigger, more menacing Ephraim, perhaps – turned inside out and then loose on the world – but Ephraim, as everyone present had came to know him, in recent days, all the same. Gazing down on them now, as a wrathful captain assailing a mutinous crew (soon to be walking the plank, every one of them), sheerly imposing. Omniscient. Indomitable.”