A reprint of a minor novella first published in 1976 that’s still a full-blown freak show of serial murder, psychological self-torment, and literal disintegration.
Ever since he was plucked from inside a locker in a New York bus terminal shortly after his birth in 1944, Bobbie Gotteson, aka the Maniac, has shattered expectations, and not in a good way. He’s traveled the country as a singer and songwriter, screen-tested (or maybe not: the putative studio denies it, and no footage has survived) for a movie role, and spent considerable time in prison. Now, put on trial for one of nine murders, more or less, he’s accused of committing, he lets it all hang out, recalling his relationships with Melva, whose son he’s been mistaken for; Danny Minx, his rapist and protector in stir; Baby Sharleen, who killed herself before she could testify against him; and a host of wraithlike women who drift in and out of his consciousness. “Consciousness,” in fact, may be too definite a term for Bobbie’s monologue, which persistently tramples on the distinctions between inside and outside, laughing and screaming, guitars and machetes, Jesus and Satan, first and third person, and the sanity Bobbie claims and the madness he acknowledges. A straight-faced footnote announces early on that “all remarks in this strange document are the Maniac’s, even those he attributes to the ‘court’ and to other people.” Oates (My Life as a Rat, 2019, etc.) withholds the gruesome details of Bobbie’s butchery; the defiant confession of this fictional counterpart of Charles Manson is horrific, often carnivalesque, but never salacious or sensationalistic. As a bonus, this edition includes Love, Careless Love, a sequel of sorts that traces the doomed bond that forms between Dewalene, a young woman still traumatized by her encounter with Bobbie, and Jules, the disturbed young man hired for unknown reasons to keep an eye on her.
What’s most memorable about these twin blasts from the past is Oates’ mastery of distinctly different flavors of nightmare, from the surreal to the flat-out demented.