A novel that recasts, in 20th century Louisiana, not only Homer’s Odyssey but James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Debut novelist Shaw is certainly not one for half measures. His protagonist and narrator is one Les Boom (a clear reference to Ulysses’ Leopold Bloom), born in 1924. Les serves in World War II, losing a leg in the Battle of the Bulge. Before the war, he’d sired a biracial child named Teddy (a reference to Odysseus’ son Telemachus) with a teenage African-American girl named Lou. He returns to Pistol Thicket a war hero and marries Molly (another Ulysses name-check), but the marriage ends badly. A second marriage to a woman named Penny, though, is a success. The crux of the plot—and of Les’ life—comes when Michael Cusack, a Klansman, firebombs the home of Lou, now remarried, because Teddy had been seen kissing a white girl. Teddy escapes and Les exacts revenge. For this, he’s sent to Angola, the notorious Louisiana prison. Months later, however, the governor pardons him and Les resumes his humble but satisfying life in Pistol Thicket until tragedy strikes. Shaw seems to be aiming to invest this book with theological and metaphysical profundity, particularly in its final chapter, but the attempt is more confusing than not, and the text might have benefited from a stronger proofread for punctuation. One intriguing feature of the work, though, is its 20 pages of front matter, including a brief plot synopsis, a character list, a timeline, and a synopsis of each chapter, which meticulously draw connections between events and characters in the Odyssey, Ulysses, and Shaw’s own opus. This is very helpful, but it’s unclear whether it encourages readers to remember all these connections or to simply put all that additional information behind them.
An earnest story that will remind readers that ambition alone doesn’t always carry the day.