Characters’ quests for companionship, work, and knowledge come to thwarted or violent ends in this insinuating, enigmatic novella.
The cast of S.H.’s debut tale moves through a placeless American landscape of generic gas stations, shopping malls, and exurban town house clusters in wooded areas. All are on mundane errands that suddenly take on sinister hues. In one subplot, for example, a young man named Aaron has no luck approaching women at the mall until a girl named Casta invites him home to meet her sister Paula, whereupon he suffers a series of shocking physical ambushes. In a second storyline, mechanic Virgil fixes teenager Peter’s car while Virgil’s wife, Candace, works at a retirement home, before a lunchtime rendezvous turns violent. In a third tale, Peter’s literature teacher, Mr. Aquinas, holds forth on Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, then tutors a young boy named Leonard on his multiplication tables before learning of tragedies involving his other students. Tying together these threads is the voice of a narrator who’s applying for a job from an irascible boss; as the two fence, their conversation gradually draws the other strands of the story into a baffling convergence. In straightforward, minimalist prose, S.H. depicts characters and their actions as ordinary and even banal. But before the subplots veer off into overt, if barely elaborated, strangeness and trauma, there’s a gathering sense of eeriness, helped along by cryptic dialogue (“Do you have a—” “Smokes make your lips hard.” “You think?”). The story is also dense with allusions to ancient literature: St. Thomas Aquinas and Virgil; Casta and Paula, who seem like a distaff version of Castor and Pollux, the famous duo from Greek mythology. The nameless narrator, meanwhile, is fixated on the biblical book of Job. It’s hard to say what it all adds up to, but readers will find the book an absorbing read as they try to puzzle out its hidden meanings.
An elliptical but arresting work of literary fiction with mysterious undercurrents.