So Far Gone: A Novel by Paul Cody

Mental illness and mass murder.  The death penalty for a perpetrator who was grotesquely victimized by those he murdered.  Hints of satanic ritual abuse (which could just as easily have been Jack Connor's delusions or dreams rather than memories), though the very real psychological abuse and daily double-binds he suffered at the controlling hands of his sadistic grandmother were just as satanic, and certainly the most destructive and damning forces in the long sad haul of his sorry, isolated existence (I won't call it a life), that he endured in a bleak house that might as well have been Death Row.

Is it seriously possible to empathize with this immature and mentally ill man who killed his grandmother and parents?  Probably not.  Not even when we see how his parents regularly threatened him with yet another psychiatric month-long incarceration at the local institution if he didn't shape up, and stop shuffling around late at night in his dreary attic room, keeping them awake with worry or driving them crazy, as if they needed any further assistance in the crazy department.  Yet Paul Cody accomplishes this impossible feat, using "eyewitness" vignettes from a multitude of sources who knew him in school or from the psychiatric hospital, in rendering the decades-long process it took for Jack Connor to become that irreparably damaged human being capable of then being that automatic monster the police and media made of him, after the fact.  But Jack Connor was not a psychopath.

Cody gave a knowing nod to Denis Johnson's first novel, Angels, and to Joan Didion, quoting both as a preface to his novel.  Fans of either Johnson or Didion might be already predisposed toward appreciating a complexly disturbing novel like Cody's as I was, which is not to say that Cody, while certainly skilled as a storyteller, is as accomplished a writer as they are. Regardless, So Far Gone is still unforgettable, if uncomfortable, to read and then contemplate, considering how the murders might've been prevented or how Jack Connor, like unknown numbers of mentally ill, fall through the system's cracks, especially in light of too many recent mass murders in the news.


A Brief Glimpse Back: Memorable Reads of 2012.

Battleborn ~ Claire Vaye Watkins
I've a strong affinity for stories set in deserts.  Most collected here occupy Death Valley and Las Vegas.  Watkins confronts the mythology surrounding her infamous father's past with most likely more mythology, but also autobiography, though they're so enmeshed it's not possible to untangle her crafty confabulations.  Her debut is generally good and sometimes genuinely great, but falls flat a few times too.  More here.

Black Light: A Novel ~ Galway Kinnell
Another story set in the desert, this time half a world away, in Iran.  A man named after Persia's mythological king, Jamshid (of which mythology Kinnell mines in his anti-hero time and again), so fed up with his dissappointing life, lashes out in an impulsive instant -- a horrible mistake -- and flees his crime for the rest of his life, if a nomad existence on the run can still be called "life".  The version I read was altered by Kinnell in 1980, following the Iranian revolution.  Originally publication: 1966.  Kinnell, being a poet, had a distinct advantage over Claire Vaye Watkins, in expressing physical as well as metaphysical realities existing in an arid wilderness.  His book is richer than Watkins' (whom I nevertheless enjoyed) by far.  More here.

Blue Nights ~ Joan Didion
The desert-like desolation of a mother's grief, having lost her only (adopted) child w/in eighteen months after losing her husband.  Devastating.  From the 60s - 90s, Didion made great understated art (Play it as it Lays) or artful understated outrage (Salvador) or understated artful disillusion (take your pick from any of her essay collections; I'd pick The White Album), but now for the last decade she's been making pure art, employing something from each of her singular oeuvres, out of her deeply personal pain.  Not yet reviewed.

The Book of Fantasy ~ Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo, Adolfo Bioy Casares, editors
Fabulous anthology.  Fantastic.  Three good friends, the Argentine luminaries listed above, debated what they thought were the best "fantastic" and ghost stories, and in 1940 the first version of their anthology was released.  They'd revise it a couple more times in later editions over the ensuing thirty-six years, adding something here, removing something there, but through it all its remained a stellar anthology, with its idiosyncratic mix of literary heavyweights mingled prominently with scores of interesting Latin American unknowns.  More here.

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why ~ Laurence Gonzales
Gonzales analyzes psychological and physiological factors in determining what the differences are for those who live and for those who die in extreme wilderness situations.  It's a fascinating, though not solely scientific, study of survival.  Not yet reviewed.

Destination: Void by Frank Herbert
Prose that's probably too dense, science and speculation since proved fantasy, but some of its ideas (1965-66) either beat Kubrick's and Clarke's iconic collaboration (1964-1968) to the punch, or coincided with them.  Herbert here certainly prefigures the images of the first Matrix.  But I'm a biased Herbert fan since childhood, I'll confess.  More here.

Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone
Could just as easily been titled The Rise and Fall of the U.S. Empire, though its focus is mostly on its fall.  Brief review here.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace ~ D.T. Max
Will link my review soon.

Masks of the Illuminati ~ Robert Anton Wilson
Works as a nice introduction to thinly veiled fictionalized versions (RAWs visions) of freemasonry, secret societies and what "illumination" might mean in an esoteric context, mixing psychology, philsophy, literature, religions and mysticism into a whimsical stew of knowledge.  It's basically a mystery or detective story, set on a sometimes-spoofish, sometimes-serious, always-elaborately-constructed gnostic stage.  More here.

Outer Dark ~ Cormac McCarthy
The muted light not quite able to filter down to the floors of an Appalachian forest; it's overrall effect of eerie otherworldliness, reminded me a lot of Chateau 'd Argol.  The uncertainty of the brother's and sisters circumstances -- and that of their child's -- whether they are being pursued or the one who pursues, or both, as much running from themselves as each other, journeying but never arriving, helps maintain that mysterious momentum, that dark air of confusion and intrigue I so enjoyed in Chateau 'd Argol as well.  Not yet reviewed.

Place Last Seen ~ Charlotte McGuinn Freeman
A child w/Down syndrome gets lost in the vast Desolation Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada.  Will search-and-rescue teams locate her in time, before an early October snowstorm moves in?  The novel was originally conceived as Charlotte Freeman's theological thesis.  It's a non-didactic, excruciating study of human suffering, asking how much suffering can a person of faith withstand before their faith erodes?  Is faith in God, next to the reality of evil and human suffering, mutually exclusive one to the other, or can they legitimately coexist? I'm thinking fans of Stewart O'Nan's, Songs for the Missing, would like this novel too.  Not yet reviewed.

Rubicon Beach ~ Steve Erickson
As good a writer as Erickson is, he should be more widely read.  In Rubicon Beach he's a mixture of what's best in the writing of Philip K. Dick and David Foster Wallace.  Posted about it here.

So Far Gone: A Novel ~ Paul Cody
Mental illness and mass murder.  The Death penalty for a perpetrator who was grotesquely victimized by those he murdered.  Is it seriously possibly to ever empathize with a man who killed his grandmother and parents?  Paul Cody accomplishes this impossible feat, and gives a knowing nod to Denis Johnson's first novel, Angels, and to Joan Didion, quoting both to begin his novel.  Paul Cody is not as great a writer as either, but So Far Gone is still unforgettable, if uncomfortable, to contemplate and read.  Not yet reviewed.

Quake ~ Rudolf Wurlitzer
L.A. gets pulverized in the Big One.  What fun!


Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

Even had I not already known the particulars regarding the real-life death of author Claire Vaye Watkins' mother, or how "Razor Blade Baby" got her name, I'm positive Battleborn's opening sentence would've still jolted me.  Claire Vaye Watkins' gallows humor knows no bounds, and even though there's little amusing about suicide or the wild-eyed image of an impulsive Charles Manson abruptly "assisting" in a difficult delivery with a rudimentary scalpel, operating in unsanitary, squalid quarters out at some now long-since-mythologized Death Valley "Ranch," I can't help but laugh, disarmed as I am by Watkins' deadpan delivery.  A delivery that often zips with wit, hooks and puns. Fun puns you don't see coming, ones that wallop you, as in the first (and I think her best) story, "Ghosts, Cowboys," a fictive/autobiographical rumination on beginnings both personal and universal in the history of the wild Wild West.

"The curse of the Comstock Lode had not yet leaked from the silver vein, not seeped into the water table.  The silver itself had not yet been stripped from the mountains, and steaming water had not yet flooded the mine shafts. Henry T.P. Comstock ... had not yet lost his love Adelaide ... who drowned in Lake Tahoe.  He had not yet traded his share of the lode for a bottle of whiskey and an old, blind mare, not yet blown his brains out with a borrowed revolver near Bozeman, Montana.

Boom times."

Excuse me while I see stars and rise slowly off the mat from that sucker punch of knockout prose...

Other times, however, I'm sorry to say, as in "Wish You Were Here," Watkins, rather than booming, is firing blanks.  The story opens sounding more like an outline than polished, crystalline prose.  "It begins with a man and a woman.  They are young ... They fall in love. They marry.  They have a child."  I suppose her staccato style throughout the story conveys an approximation of Marin's disjointed thinking, her confusion and anxiety on the cusp of becoming a mother and how depersonalized, perhaps, her pregnancy is causing her to feel, especially in relation to her husband who, "Before bed -- when once he would have touched her -- he leans down and speaks to her midsection," but the start-stop choppiness of the writing itself, and not just the choppiness of Marin's emotions and interiority, are annoying without relief.  The story, unfortunately, is one of the more irritating stories I've read.  Marin feels (she sure feels an awful lot here) that the new tiny town she and her husband moved to in the desert recently, "with its city traffic whispering like the sea" (and what an unusually pedestrian, uninspired simile for Watkins -- "city traffic whispering like the sea") "tries too hard".  I don't think it's just the town that is trying too hard in "Wish You Were Here."  Thankfully, the majority of Watkins' stories are good enough they needn't bother trying so hard.

Case in point:  "The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past," in which all three delineated vagaries of the story title's "past," seeping out in the sordid lives of the characters employed by, or who manage, the Cherry Patch Ranch, Nevadan outpost of legalized harlotry, mere inches beyond the Clark County line where prostitution remains outlawed, flow and intertwine with seamless ease.

Darla is Michele's favorite delicacy on the Cherry Patch Ranch's "menu".  He's lonesome since his too adventurous buddy, Rienzo, went and walked off alone into a desert state park outside Vegas, where he was possibly tricked into walking just a little further, a little further, by some shimmering mirage of summer's triple-digit wrath materializing on the sand.  Maybe if he'd carried water he'd have come back.  Days later, when Rienzo still has not returned or his body been discovered, despite the diligent efforts of local search-and-rescue teams, Michele, rather than mope around his hotel room or play blackjack in the attached megacasino, arrives at the Cherry Patch.  His Italian suit and accent make the ladies come alive as he enters.  "Pick me, pick me".   Instead, he drinks beer at the bar and Darla saunters over night after night, for a week.  All Michele does is drink, consummating his grief over Rienzo's loss through chit chat rather than a standard, burger-and-fries equivalent, "suck and fuck".

Manny, the brothel's gay manager and bartender, develops a secret but intense crush on Michele, and so lets him sit at the bar all night with Darla rather than insisting he get down to the dirty and proper business of his brothel, like he'd demand of any other patron wasting his precious time schmoozing instead of screwing.   "Army Amy" and her bulging biceps and colossal bosom could probably teach Michele and Darla a trick or two, no doubt envisions making bank with a lucrative mènage à trois, but Darla, wouldn't you know it (and my how Claire Vaye Watkins knows a narrative trick or two, turning her own as she plays some English-usage "pun and games" with the story's title and Michele's limited English usage comprehension) could be turning her most profitable trick ever on Michele, a cruel and platonic trick whose consequences may force Michele into making some forever-life-altering decisions he'd might not have made otherwise had he remained back at the casino awaiting news of Rienzo there.

photo by Alice O'Malley
Other shrewd tricks showcased in Battleborn are equally as nuanced and devastating.  Like the bored, romantic notions that spur two teenage girls into making an impromptu pilgrimage from their humdrum Minnesota town in "Rondine Al Nido" to that dream's oasis, Las Vegas.  To the decadent, megalopolis of the deluded and their delusions that, from an elevated distance miles away, appears like "a blanket made of lights, like light is liquid and the city is a great glistening lake."  A lake of fire. Though in the naive eyes of "Our Girl" (could "Our Girl" be a disguised Claire Vaye Watkins?) and Lena, that lake of fire's nocturnal radiance is paradise awaiting, and not their impending perdition.  For little do our two heroines know that they are in fact about to pass through the gates of hell on earth once they open the doors to New York New York.  Can you blame them that they want to be a part of it, New York New York? Still, it's hard not to cringe watching Our Girl and Lena go down a casino escalator, buzzed and struggling to hold their booze, when they make eyes at four cute guys -- and of course they're angelic imps -- going the other way, up up up.   Uh oh.  Don't go, Girls (I want to reach into the book and stop them), please don't go up like that in your skimpy skirts in awkward flirtatious pursuit (awkward because that's not really them), for these bad cads (don't you know? can't you see?), besides lecherous pigs, could be cons!  Or worse....

Our Girl and Lena soon regretfully realize that despite the iconic and brilliant marketing campaign to the contrary, what happens in Vegas doesn't always stay in Vegas, but follows you home.  Hunter S. Thompson and John O'Brien both nod with great affection at Watkins, because they also know...

Claire Vaye Watkins is an endearing author at home in the literal and figurative desolation existing in rugged deserts and more rugged hearts.   She could just as easily have been the daughter of Edward Abbey as Tex Watkins, so attuned is her soulful bond to the austerity of the eastern Mojave, to its hardy denizens surviving in the fringes of California and Nevada.  When Watkins is on, she's fucking fireworks.  A writer exuberant and beyond exciting to read.  When she's off (which is rare), she's still a lot more interesting than the average fictive fare out there, even if the stories -- the aforementioned "Wish You Were Here" and one I didn't mention, "The Archivist" -- threaten lightning and thunder, but ultimately, it pains me to say, fizzle.  Though maybe those stories will soar and explode off the page for other readers in wonderful ways that eluded me.  Regardless, Claire Vaye Watkins is generally good and going to be genuinely great one day.  I can't wait for her first novel.