The prolific author (No Certain Rest, 2002, etc.) and PBS anchor takes two lunatic asylum inmates for protagonists in his quirky latest.
The Somerset asylum in Missouri is a nightmarish snake pit: the attendants subdue the patients with baseball bats, and the doctors covet their charges’ brains for research. In 1918, a humane physician, Will Mitchell, saves the life of Josh—mute by day, a screamer at night—and later effects a cure by having him talk about his special interest, the Centralia massacre of Union soldiers in 1864. For reasons we don’t learn until later, Josh can’t be released, but in 1933 he takes under his wing a new inmate, Birdie, fresh from witnessing the Union Station massacre in Kansas City. The young man is quick to mimic Josh’s former symptoms, and after Birdie is caught in the library stacks with a female volunteer, Josh helps him escape. The two men catch the Flying Crow to Union Station, which dazzles Josh with its splendor. He has pressing reasons to return to Somerset, but Birdie, though loath to lose his protector, will live at the station for 64 years before being rousted from his hideaway by a Kansas City cop, Randy Benton. The narrative jumps around among 1918, 1933, and 1997 as Randy unravels the mystery of Birdie and Josh. Lehrer’s 14th outing is powered by barely compatible interests: two historical massacres, the inhumane treatment of mental patients, and the era when railroads were king and stations were palaces. The lurid details of asylum life and the massacres overshadow Birdie and Josh, while the author’s keen nostalgia for the glory days of railroading assorts well with neither. Though Josh and his double-layered secret are accounted for, Birdie remains an enigma, an attractive, adventurous young man with possible Mob connections (we don’t know for sure) who grows deaf to everything save the siren song of Union Station.
A disjointed oddity, well below Lehrer’s best work.