“‘Out!’ I said. I suppose I was shouting. My sister stood up, trembling, and I must admit that I expected her familiar sneer to have taken its usual place on her face. But all I could find there was unhappiness and fear. Fear of my reaction, perhaps. But when a person has lived a life like hers, a life of promiscuity, rootlessness, and substance abuse, resentment and fear tend to replace all reasonable and proper emotions, and the world becomes your enemy.” -Eric Loesch
An ex-soldier with a mysterious past. A venture into the eerily silent forest flanking a house recently purchased outside “Gettysburg, New York, population 2,310 and falling.” An albino deer that leads the protagonist to a strange castle hidden among “tightly packed maples, birches, ashes, and pines.” A confrontation with the forgotten.
If these sound at all like tropes of a conventional thriller, it is because they are. But in the fiction of J. Robert Lennon, whatever sort of genre costume the narrative might wear, there is always something more to be peeked at beneath the outer layers, sly hints of contradiction to the façade. Lennon’s novels fulfill the role of cool older brother spotted in the banquet-hall of a formal affair, winking, ‘Hey, kid, it’s me.’ The Harrison Ford of literary fiction, if you will: reckless, ungainly, charming.
Castle, Lennon’s latest novel, is not so big on formality even if the aforementioned protagonist, Eric Loesch, practices its art where ever he goes, a self-protective mechanism: there are things that he would rather forget.
With a blend of solipsism, presumption, and unease, Eric rebuffs the everyday friendliness of the few people with whom he must interact in purchasing the plot of land and procuring the necessary supplies for his home renovation project. “Yalp,” a local electrician named Heph opines with respect to Eric’s labors, “it’s real nice to see a house come back from the dead, as it were.” Thinks Eric: “His backwoods charm and colloquial speech did little to dispel my sense that he was observing and testing me, gauging my reactions to his supposedly innocent comments and questions.”
When a real estate agent named Jennifer thanks him for making her day with a big sale, Eric explains that he would “prefer to keep things between us on a professional level.” His implication is not well-met.
And yet, it isn’t that he doesn’t mean well. A children’s book, discovered in the moldy basement of his new home, speaks to him: “The book offered a character with whom I was able to identify, and a portrayal of bravery and self-reliance that corresponded very closely to my own values. I wished only I could send the book back in time, to my younger self, in his moments of greatest need.” For Eric, his “younger self” continues to exist, marooned in time—surely a sympathetic trait. He simply happens to be a guy grown accustomed to a hostile world. The reasons for that lurk in the shadowy recesses of the house he has purchased and the castle deep in the silent woods and the unacknowledged confines of his own painful history.
Researching the identity of the house’s former owner, Eric converses with a professor at the local college, who is compelled to respond to his challenge in the following manner:
“All I meant,” she said slowly, “was that, in the wake of the sixties, and of our military adventures abroad, most intelligent people have absorbed the idea that none of us is ever very far from emotional collapse.” When I offered no reply, she went on. “Our personalities are complex, but the animal instincts they conceal are stronger, and not very far below the surface.” She met my stare and said, “Don’t you agree, Mr. Loesch?”
Castle is a novel about shame, the inchoate and unnamed rearing up its ugly face, the best built defenses helpless to prevent it. Eric has a passion for restoring the run-down and surveying the uncharted; other people, no matter what emotions might blip across the sonar of his self-perception, signal a threat: fear or disgust. And yet… he knows… he knows… there is… someone… else… out there. While harboring resentment, even rage, for his long estranged sister’s perceived lifestyle, Eric, an intelligent man, has managed to make a relative nullity of his life, lacking for nourishing social ties (akin to Marilynne Robinson’s Jack Boughton) and taking refuge in the creaking home whose former owner may well have been his one-time mentor.
“Did the family ever imagine, as they sat together around the table, that this room might someday be empty of everything but cobwebs and dust?”: In short, Eric is a creep, convinced, perhaps rightly, of a greater creepiness’s existence, itself a creepy thing to dwell on. Lennon employs the means of thriller convention (“He was here—I knew it. The moment had come”/ “At last, I faced my nemesis.”/ “I was, at last, inside the castle.”), the ends of which are sales and movie adaptations, to turn the story around, as it were, and cast a hard look at the face peering in. Which is, of course, only the face that Lennon imagines. Though, as anyone who has read Mailman knows, his imagination in regard to male creepiness is more than fertile.
“Surprises Are Good But Not When They Are Eternal”: The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter
“‘If you had disappeared, if you had died, we would have… we would have become you. We would have taken you on. We would have turned into you.’ He waits. ‘You would have lived in us.’” –Jerome Coolberg to Nathaniel Mason
“Everyone needs to be saved, right now, instantly saved from history itself, the factuality of it.”: For all the submerged horrors he has faced, one thing Eric Loesch can count himself fortunate never to have experienced is a roomful of partying grad students. Now it is there that the unnerving truly underlies everything said and done, the amassed ambition, swirling anxiety, identities in seemingly permanent flux. What type of grad students, you ask? Well, their physical location is Buffalo, NY, but, more than that, Charles Baxter’s latest novel The Soul Thief does not state. Something to do with art, suffice it to say; perhaps, music, or literature, or philosophy. The exact subject of their studies rests beside the fact of their immersion in each other’s example, the figure each cuts.
Or figures, rather. At least, when it comes to Jerome Coolberg, whose name, the narrator Nathaniel Mason acknowledges, “sounds fictional and implausible, a poor effort at whimsy.” While the shambolic factor is subtextual in Lennon’s Castle, here it occupies a position in the novel’s foreground, enacted through the shenanigans of Mr. Coolberg and ultimately driven by him to such lengths as to resemble nothing so much as art.
Says a partygoer of “whiz-kid sage” Coolberg at the grad school gathering where Nathaniel makes his acquaintance: “He’s the first person I’ve known who can be in two places at once. He’s dislocated. Not a joint or a knee—the whole person.” When Nathaniel and his impromptu date Theresa find Coolberg holding court in one corner of the old house, Nathaniel observes how his voice has “a pleading note, halfway between seduction and distress, and an intelligent gentleness that is all the more alarming for its measured calm, its burnt-over benumbed despair.” As well, Coolberg insists that he be called either “Jerome” or “Coolberg.” Never “Jerry.”
Another important question, though: who is Nathaniel? An earnest observer, a good looking guy, a transplant from the Midwest (his father: “a patiently good man who seemed to relish his nonentity status, his lack of individuality”), Nathaniel also takes great satisfaction in volunteering at The People’s Kitchen, a local pantry founded to lend aid to those who cannot afford a warm meal. When he returns to his apartment one night to find a burglar rooting through his shirt-closet, he decides to have a chat with the man, bidding him when he makes his belated exit: “Drop by again. Just knock next time.” Every so often Nathaniel receives a phone call from his mute sister, Catherine, to whom he feels obligated to recount the events of his day, believing that “the stories keep her alive.”
Generous and well-intentioned, perhaps to a fault, Nathaniel’s heart is divided between two women: Theresa, whom he meets in a rain-dappled park en route to that initial party—she is a Midwestern transplant much like himself, if also, like Coolberg, a student of the striking image—and Jamie Esterson, a sweet, mothering sculptor, who lives a solitary existence full of fleeting, all-consuming passions. It also happens that she identifies as a lesbian. No matter: a recovering Catholic, Jamie finds herself drawn to Nathaniel’s virtues, in the original sense of the term. “You make me nervous,” she tells him. “You’re too available. You need to be more vigilant. Close yourself down a little. Men shouldn’t be like you.”
One of these entanglements quickly becomes more serious than the other, while, not to be forgotten, along totters Coolberg, trailing Nathaniel’s literal and figurative footsteps. There is this novel he is working on, you see: “The strain of loving two women is one that few men can withstand,” the aspiring great professes to Nathaniel, “Even Ezra Pound lost his mind by loving two women. This young man, this character named Ambrose, develops an antipathy to daylight because in his doubleness, his double-heartedness, he fears that he will meet himself on the sidewalk coming toward himself from the opposite direction.”
Steadily, the moment is forced toward its crisis.
When the smoke clears, decades have passed, Nathaniel having returned to the Midwest, a suburban home, two boys, a loving and “frighteningly guileless” wife. Regularly at night, a show called “American Evenings” plays on the radio, one whose host happens to be that old classmate of Nathaniel’s, Jerome Coolberg. It is a show Nathaniel has paid attention to from time to time, in spite of himself, marveling at Coolberg’s technique of making himself at once invisible and omnipresent. All these years later, Nathaniel’s feelings for Jamie abide in his heart, memory of their relationship’s dissolution still fresh:
“This is desperation you’re witnessing,” he says, gripping her. All at once, the thought occurs to him that what he’s expressing is not love but hysteria, rising out of his own emptiness. He is in the grip of inflated speech, exaggeration, all the insincere locutions of opacity and self-deception. He is becoming, he feels with sudden queasy recognition, like a character in a plot dreamed up by someone like Coolberg.
Nathaniel’s chance to address the unresolved arrives one evening in the form of a call from that very Coolberg, inviting his old acquaintance out to L.A., for a talk like those on the show he hosts. But this one will transpire without the studio set. Nathaniel accepts the invitation, once again, in spite of himself. He meets with Coolberg at Chateau Marmont, or a scene very like it, and together, the two venture out toward Santa Monica. Nathaniel waxes poetic: “Night dropped its black lace around us.” Time plays onward through drinks and rehashing of the past until Nathaniel finds himself in Coolberg’s apartment, its mystery at last revealed to him:
The rooms looked like the temporary unsupervised housing of someone with a ravening spiritual hunger, a grandiloquent vacancy that would consume anything to fill up the interior space where a soul should be. Books were piled and stacked everywhere. Behind this craving resided an urge as strong as love.
Baxter—yes, Baxter: where has he gone in this account?—has written a novel that ought to last for as much time as there is between here and forever. The Soul Thief is the coolest book to have read, and never admit to having read. Perhaps the creepiest two sentences of all fall in the novel’s final section, oddly resonating, as they do, with Lennon’s Castle: “Nathaniel Mason enters the silent house. I can easily imagine it.”
- Jeff Price is a freelance writer and editor.