A small masterpiece of black comedy and suspense about a trio of backwoods heroes who embark upon a modern-day quest.
Covering 24 hours, set in small-town Vermont, the novel begins and ends with a certain New England ennui, but what fills the in-between is an absorbing tale of toppling the giant of the woods. The day begins with Lillian sitting in her car, a paring knife in her lap, her dead cat in the passenger seat. Waiting for the sheriff, she wants to lodge a complaint against Blackway, a notorious thug who has been stalking her, and most recently offed fluffy Annabelle. Sheriff Wingate says he can’t help without proof (he’s strictly by the book), but maybe she should talk to some men at the old mill to see what they can do. Mill owner Whizzer sends Lillian off with Nate the Great, a large young man with more brawn than brains, and Lester Speed, an old-timer whose bag full of tricks will resolve Lillian’s problems. While the three track down their man (against Nate’s steady refrain: “I ain’t afraid of Blackway” and Lester’s vague plan to defeat a notorious outlaw), Whizzer and his gang of loafers sit in the mill office (one suspects this is a daily occurrence) and drink beer, philosophize and fill in some of the backstory about Lillian, Lester and Nate. Whizzer and the boys are beautifully nuanced, familiar and original, as they happily pontificate about nothing much. Meanwhile, our heroes, a few steps behind Blackway, find themselves at a trashy motel, in a windowless bar (where a man loses an ear thanks to Lester’s quick wrist) and finally in a forest, where they plan to confront Blackway at his converted bus. His novel a loose rendering of a King Arthur tale, Freeman (My Life and Adventures, 2002, etc.) builds a sense of otherworldly menace around Blackway, part petty-crook, part bogeyman. It seems all but impossible that an unarmed woman, a hulking youth and a limping old man could slay this beast.
If all novels were this good, Americans would read more.