The author of Blue Horse Dreaming (2003) tells the unhappy story of a very unlucky girl.
When Jamie Hall’s mother dies, the teenager runs away to an unnamed town, an island of humanity that’s been a bitter ghost of its former self ever since the federal government flooded it to create a reservoir. For a while, she’s kept by a mean drunk she meets at a pizza parlor. Her life is already on a downward spiral when she frees a feral boy tied to a tree. It turns out that he is the junkman’s son, part of an inbred clan that lives in near-freakish squalor and depravity. Jamie’s kind act unleashes a wave of violence: The junkman wants retribution for her meddling, and the feral boy himself is mindlessly bloodthirsty. This setup is promising enough in a Gothic sort of way, but the author is able only to drain it of drama: Wallace repeatedly chooses seemingly portentous description over forward momentum. This is a novel in which a wisteria vine is “ancient,” “serpentlike” and “now barren.” It takes the author 27 words to describe a walk that Jamie takes up a flight of stairs (she reports not only every creak, but the meaning of every creak). Ironically, Wallace’s ponderous care ultimately saps all significance from her narrative. As Jamie remains in this miserable, dangerous place, one can’t help but wonder why she doesn’t move on—anywhere is better than here. But then Jamie recalls a scene from her past: Looking out the window of the apartment she shared with her mother, she sees a “long useless and long unused canal that barely flowed, which in summer was thick with scum, floating garbage, the bellied-up carcasses of small animals no one could recognize from the bloat, and even when frozen in the winter emanated a stench of stagnant water and death.” At this point, the reader realizes that Jamie’s universe is one of unremitting foulness and despair, and Wallace’s narration begins to seem farcical in its utter bleakness. At least the dog doesn’t die.
A grim, ugly caricature of tragedy.