A sober, unadorned tale of backwoods villagers who fear a murderer stalks their young.
On the yard of her home in Crawford, Virginia, six-year old Tory Bone discovers an upright stone marking what may be a grave. Tory’s mother Penny feels especially vulnerable since she and Tory live alone—six years remain of husband and father John’s twenty-year prison sentence for manslaughter. Penny also suspects that the Gypsy Man may have returned. According to Crawford folklore, he is “a gobbler . . . [who] devours children and dogs and cats.” A rather plain mosaic of intertwining narratives follows, making it clear that the fear of this evil bogeyman binds many of Crawford’s villagers to one another. The somewhat simple-minded Morgan Tiller fully trusts his father’s tales of the Gypsy Man. Sheriff Paxton, contemptuous of the mountain folk, takes a more skeptical view, as does schoolteacher Henry Gault, predictably aware of the powers of superstition. But Gault also agonizes over the disappearance of Terry Landon, a black student the teacher insisted upon enrolling in school even before the law ended segregation. (Some in Crawford believe Landon was one of the Gypsy Man’s victims.) Meanwhile, in prison, John Bone saves the life of a guard suffering a heart attack. Bone expects his deed will bring an early release, but a warden soon extinguishes that hope. Bone soon escapes, only to be captured to stand trial for the murder of Terry Landon—whose crushed bones have recently been unearthed from a grave discovered under the marker on Bone’s homestead. He appears headed to conviction. Then the secret of a past accident and the true meaning of the Gypsy Man are revealed in a meaningful twist that Bausch skillfully draws from his tale.
Bausch (A Hole in the Earth, 2000, etc.) wisely avoids the sensational, the sentimental, the easy effect, but maybe too scrupulously: his tale of lost souls lacks a certain poignancy or poetry that could make it more memorable.