A successful novelist obsessively revisits a fateful night he missed back in the ’60s in this intense, ambitious, but unfocused saga of an encounter with ultimate evil.
Lee Harwell was once an ordinary high-school senior in Madison, Wis., with a tomboy girlfriend, Lee Truax (dubbed “the Eel” to distinguish her from him), and a handful of other schoolmates—Howard (Hootie) Bly, Jason (Boats) Boatman, Donald (Dilly) Olson—apparently destined for nothing special. Then peripatetic guru Spencer Mallon blew into town and, assisted by his irresistible blond lover Meredith Bright, charmed all the friends but Lee to join him and two University of Wisconsin students, Keith Hayward and Brett Milstrap, in an obscure nocturnal ritual in a nearby meadow. By the time the night was over, Keith was dead and horribly mutilated, and Meredith had disappeared. The years since have treated the survivors very differently. Milstrap has pointedly failed to grow up; the Eel has married Lee and gone blind; Meredith has resurfaced and married money and power; Hootie hasn’t budged from the mental hospital to which he was sent, speaking only in quotations from The Scarlet Letter and a dictionary of obscure words; Boats has moved from shoplifting to helping merchants catch shoplifters; and Dilly, apparently the group’s leader, has failed to do much of anything. When Lee’s agent urges him to try his hand at nonfiction, he recalls the mysterious incident and determines to find out exactly what he missed. As if he’d tapped a rock with a magic wand, a stream of reminiscences, childhood tales, digressive episodes, retrospective analyses and increasingly hair-raising scenarios comes pouring out. But the truth of the Big Whatsit remains shrouded in murky visions and oracular observations (“time isn’t linear…it goes sideways”), even after the last veil is rent asunder.
Straub’s last few fantasies (In the Night Room, 2004, etc.) have been ever more baroque, but this tall, dark tale beats them all for heaven-storming scale and wheels within wheels.