In this murky novel, two tormented characters, on separate quests, find the going rough.
Old-time country music is Cyrus Harper’s lifeblood, inherited from his mother Ruth, a fiddler and singer until her husband found religion and forbade secular music. That didn’t stop Cyrus and his sister Saro from singing together at gigs in their hometown of Apogee, in the Missouri Ozarks, until she mysteriously disappeared at age 19. Cyrus moved to San Francisco, hoping to find her. The guitarist and singer/songwriter produced one album full of songs of deep gloom. Now more than a decade has passed, Saro is still missing, and Cyrus is drinking heavily; she was his muse. He gets a call from his brother Isaac, a developer who never left Apogee; Ruth is near death. Cyrus returns home, still hoping Saro will show up. His point of view alternates with that of a woman called Margaret Bowman, who is armed and dangerous. Once married to a junkie, they had two kids. The junkie, now dead, killed their small son; Margaret did time as his accomplice. She has skipped parole and is passing through Apogee to retrieve her daughter Madeline from her in-laws. It’s not a rest stop; she will blow the head off a would-be rapist, a high-school football player, and then kill his three harmless buddies, burying them in the woods. A hunt ensues, but Margaret escapes and reaches Madeline’s house, then decides to leave her be, thus calling her mission into question. Her role evidently was to contribute blood and guts to an anemic story line, but it doesn’t work. What does? Well, the novel is authentic in its celebration of dedicated musicians, now gone; its nostalgia is heartfelt. The plotting, though, is ramshackle. The mystery of Saro’s disappearance is solved in a way that’s both lurid and anticlimactic, while Cyrus is overwhelmed by the same trippy visions that had plagued his mother—malevolent hog-eyed men, an authorial indulgence.
Glib fatalism and self-conscious prose obscure a potential talent.