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May 2005
 
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Books
by Elizabeth Hand

A Handbook of American Prayer, by Lucius Shepard, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2004, $22.

Tijuana Straits, by Kem Nunn, Scribner, 2004, $25.

There and Back Again: An Actor's Tale, by Sean Astin with Joe Layden, St. Martin's Press, 2004, $24.95.

The Devil in Design: The Krampus Postcards, written, edited, and designed by Monte Beauchamp, Fantagraphics Books, 2004, $18.95.

SEASONS IN HELL

AT THE HEEL of the past year I was vouchsafed a spiritual truth; or, rather, a revision of one:

Hell is not other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre observed in No Exit. Hell is other people in a Mexican border town.

Just in case Touch of Evil wasn't enough to convince you of this, three (relatively) recent novels bear it out—Nancy Farmer's brilliant and blackly visionary dystopia, The House of the Scorpion (2002), winner of a National Book Award and one of the bleakest YA science fiction novels ever written; Lucius Shepard's metaphysical romance, A Handbook of American Prayer; and Kem Nunn's nightmarish suspense novel Tijuana Straits. Farmer's book isn't new enough to warrant a review here, but it shares enough elements—in particular the Grand Guignol seediness, corruption, desperation, and just plain weirdness of the border culture—with the other two novels that it's worth mentioning en passant. A Handbook of American Prayer and Tijuana Straits share a great deal, as well; most explicitly, protagonists who are former convicts, basically decent if feckless men who've done their time and made shaky but considerable progress as upstanding (or usually standing; both have a tendency to knock back a few) members of American society. Each embodies the sentiment expressed by Wardlin Stuart, narrator of Shepard's novel—"We're all sociopaths to some extent, benign ones for the most part, capable of squeezing ourselves into whatever dress is required for success in a particular environment."

Wardlin has been sentenced to ten years for first degree manslaughter. Halfway through his term, he's knifed by another prisoner. His surgeon tells Wardlin it's a miracle he survived.

This suggested the possibility that prayer itself was the miracle worker, that whatever name was attached to a prayer, be it Allah, or Jesus or Damballa, was less important than the intensity and particularity with which one prayed, and the moment one chose to offer up one's prayer. Thus prayer, perhaps even faith, might be seen as an immoderate act of physics, a functional means of effecting small changes in reality.

And so for the remainder of his sentence, Wardlin becomes a metaphysicist. He begins composing, then writing out prayers, for himself at first, and then for his fellow prisoners, who ask for the things prisoners desire, and pay in the currency prisoners possess.

The first prayer Wardlin writes on demand begins "The pig-nosed daughter of Genevieve Sharp hates me." It works. So do the other prayers that Wardlin composes, though he turns down most requests. He names his spiritual work-for-hire "prayerstyle." On the page it resembles not very good poetry—

   Oh, Lord of Lonelieness,
   drowning in candleflame,
   sitting with your cup of raw
    spirits
   at a back table in the Cantina
    de Flor Negra
   in Nada Concepción,
   spittle and mezcal dribblings
   beaded up on your mustache.…

—but, as mentioned, it works. So much so that after praying for success and for a woman, Wardlin gathers his prayerstyle supplications into manuscript form and finds a publisher. He places a personals ad in a magazine and finds a woman, Therese, who owns a gift shop in the one-horse town of Pershing, Arizona. He and Therese are soulmates (hey, it's a novel!), despite enough realistic scrapping to keep their romance from soaring off to Touched by an Angel territory.

They marry. Wardlin's prison term ends. They move to Pershing. Which sounds like a great place to live—mildly eccentric natives, desert scenery, a great bar owned by a retired Vegas showgirl; all nicely, economically described by Shepard—until Wardlin's book, A Handbook of American Prayer, is published by a small press and, in the best tradition of warning us of the perils of overnight literary success, all hell breaks loose—because Wardlin's prayers have been answered.

The book becomes huge. The excerpts from Wardlin's prayerstyle missives are a little artsy-fartsy for my taste (but then I'm a heathen), and I had trouble believing that the highly desired Wal-Mart demographic would buy lines like "a wind troubles the brim of his hat/beneath which breeds a Swedenborgian magic."

But the titles are good: "Prayer for Lyle Gallant's Allstate Insurance," "Prayer for Elizabeth Elko's Divorce Action." Before you can say "Be careful what you wish for," A Handbook of American Prayer has inspired hundreds of websites and a genuine cult, the Wardlinites. Before you can say "Oprah's Choice," Wardlin is on the cover of Time and Newsweek. He's on Larry King Live! Sharon Stone's on the line! She wants to host a party for him!

Shepard has great fun with all this. It's to his considerable credit that Wardlin can undergo all this and remain both a believable protagonist and a believable son of a bitch—after all, he killed a man.

"Don't," I said to Sue [his agent], who was looking reprovingly at me. "Don't fucking tell me not to fucking curse when Larry and me go fucking live. Okay?"

Jerry Falwell is supposed to be Wardlin's opponent on the Larry King show. When he bows out, Wardlin instead finds himself squaring off with the Reverend Monroe Treat, a preacher who favors lime-green briefs and, after declaring A Handbook of American Prayer to be Satan's Bible, ignites it on live TV, which of course has the immediate and customary effect of sending the book into multiple printings.

Up to this point, A Handbook of American Prayer has functioned as a very clever satire on the role of religion on contemporary American culture. So I had some misgivings at the reappearance of a character we met earlier: a sinister figure whom Wardlin first encountered in a bar just over the border in Nogales.

"A diminutive, mustachioed man in a slouch hat, a black sport coat, black shirt, black jeans…"

I immediately had this guy pegged as Gaff, Edward James Olmos's character in Blade Runner; but Shepard didn't do me the courtesy of outfitting him with enigmatic origami animals, so I guess I was wrong. Wardlin, however, recognizes him almost immediately: he is the Lord of Loneliness himself, the demiurge to whom Wardlin, unwittingly, has been offering his prayers. Is he the genuine article, summoned into being by the supplications of millions of Americans? Is he a stalker, drawn by Wardlin's celebrity and promise of a particularly American form of consumerist salvation? Or is he Something, Someone, even more maleficent, interested in a far more ancient form of transaction with Wardlin Stuart?

Shepard plays the question of the dark man's identity like a masterful version of the shell game. Even by the novel's end it remains ambiguous, though there are sly hints, like the name the man uses when he tempts Wardlin in the desert—he calls himself Darren, Gaelic for "little great one," and another malevolent figure who later emerges is named Galen, "little bright one." Darren himself has some interesting and original ideas about Wardlin's own true nature—"Problem for avatars is, they attract a special class of predators."

The novel's climax comes during a hellacious trip to the suppurating underbelly of Nogales, where Wardlin's role as novice metaphysicist is finally put to the test; but not before Shepard has gotten off some great riffs on fundamentalists, the origins of religious belief, sex, and our current president.

I contemplated the prospect that there would one day be a George W. Bush Presidential Library and decided it would be stocked with volumes such as The Little Golden Book of Trees.

A Handbook of American Prayer is lyrical, caustic, scary and funny by turns; one of Shepard's best novels, and that's saying something. I'm still not certain exactly where Darren falls into the book's metaphysical scheme. But I'm betting that if he were the sort of guy to leave origami figures at the scene of the crime, his trademark would have horns.

It has been fifteen years since Kem Nunn's debut novel, the punk noir Tapping the Source, a National Book Award finalist that's now considered a cult classic. The book is greatly admired by genre novelists, among them Lewis Shiner, Richard Grant, and myself; its vision of the broken-glass glare of Huntington Beach, California's surfing scene, circa 1988, ending in a Manson-era horrorshow, remains as potent today as when the book first appeared. Tapping the Source deservedly won great acclaim, garnering its author comparisons to Robert Stone and Graham Greene, names also invoked by critics praising Lucius Shepard, and fans of Shepard's work will no doubt enjoy Kem Nunn's books as well.

Nunn's second and third novels were less successful outings than his first. It wasn't until 1997's The Dogs of Winter that he returned to the winning formula of surf and suspense. His newest book, Tijuana Straits, invokes the same milieu, its plot impelled by a nearly unbearable sense of the boundlessness of human evil. Like Robert Stone's Bay of Souls, Tijuana Straits has a mythic subtext which raises it above the constraints of mere suspense to a sort of grandeur mal reminiscent of The Third Man or The Silence of the Lambs. Kem Nunn may never live down Tapping the Source. It's a young man's book, brash and hard-headed and fast and clever. Tijuana Straits is something different, and maybe even something better, ominous, compelling, and wise; a book not afraid to explore that black borderland between midlife and the dark country that lies just beyond.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

I make no secret of being a Tolkien geek. I love the books, I love Peter Jackson's movie. I love Elijah Woods's prosthetic feet. I also love Hollywood and theatrical biographies—the sleazier and the more photographs, the better—which makes Sean Astin's autobiography my ideal Fun Read. Admittedly, the sleaze factor isn't high—Kenneth Anger wasn't available, alas, so this is no Middle Earth Rising; the book was ghostwritten with Joe Layden (author of WWF Wrestlemania: The Official Insider's Story, among other titles).

But the voice that comes through in There and Back Again: An Actor's Tale is very much Sean Astin's. If you've ever wanted to know how Samwise Gamgee really feels about Gandalf, this is the book for you. The son of Patty Duke and John Astin (his adoptive father), Sean Astin was born into the acting profession. As a kid he made a splashy debut in The Goonies, then went on to take roles in modern-day B-movies like Icebreaker and Encino Man, as well as failed blockbusters like Memphis Belle. The best thing about Astin's book is his humility and honesty, something you rarely find in Hollywood. This isn't to say he doesn't have ambitions and an ego—he does, and they're big ones—but he's also refreshingly modest about his own abilities, and blunt about the economics of the business. He's happily married, he has kids, and a mortgage on a nice suburban home in Encino; he needs to work. So, early in his career he takes on Disney's Encino Man, despite his opinion of the project—

I read the script out loud while standing just off Hollywood Boulevard, snorting and laughing and dismissing it—I can vividly remember—saying, "This is the biggest piece of shit script I have ever read in my entire life."

You won't find that in Laurence Olivier's biography.

In true Hollywood fashion, Astin's life changes when Peter Jackson casts him as Sam in The Lord of the Rings. Anyone who loves Jackson's film—heck, anyone who hates it—will love this book. It's rife with details of the strenuous shoot, insider gossip, homey snapshots of Sean and the rest of the cast. There's a great, admiring chapter on Andy Serkis's work as Gollum; priceless sniping about Sir Ian McKellen, who is rather mean to poor Sean; sweet word-portraits of Peter Jackson and his family at home. Throughout, Astin comes across as being a lot like Sam—earnest, occasionally humorless, tirelessly hardworking, a devoted family man; selfless in his regard for his fellow actors (except for Sir Ian) and wonderfully candid about the whole film-making process and the rest of the cast. Where else will you find the answers to these burning questions:

  • Are Frodo and Sam gay? (No.)
  • Did Sean ever actually finish reading The Lord of the Rings? (No.)
  • What part of Viggo Mortensen's body bears his secret LOTR tattoo? (You'll have to read for yourself.)
  • Was Sean really upset that he didn't get an Academy Award nomination? (Well, wouldn't you be?)
Astin's book ends with a lovely portrait of him backstage at the Oscars with Steven Spielberg, who had just presented the award for Best Picture.
    He said something I'll never forget.
    "You know how many kids around the world are happy right now, because the Academy finally agrees with them and has the same sensibilities? They wanted it for Star Wars; they wanted it for Raiders." He paused for a second.
    "And now the Academy has graduated in its thinking?" I interrupted. "And they'll honor fantasy and science fiction?"
    Steven nodded. A smile crossed his bearded face; even now, in his mid-fifties, he looked like a kid.
    "Yeah. I hope so."
Me too. This isn't an epic book about an epic film series; it's a view from the trenches. Onscreen, Sean Astin proved himself as an actor; here he proves himself as a decent human being. As most of you know, the two are rarely compatible.

Finally, an antidote for those still suffering from the insulin shock induced by the Christmas season (lo these months later): The Devil in Design, a collection of ghoulish antique Krampus postcards compiled by Monte Beauchamp for Fantagraphics. Krampus is a demonic figure with horns and a long, protruding, phallic tongue; in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and a few other European countries he accompanies St. Nicholas on his rounds, punishing naughty children by beating them or shackling them or tossing them into his sack. The full-color cards collected here date from the late 1800s to the early 1900s; they range from lurid Struwwelpeter-style Teutonic horrors to more subtle drawings reminiscent of the work of Art Spiegelman or even Arthur Rackham, albeit a Rackham who's been tweaking meth for too many nights in a row. Krampus has a penchant for sneaking up behind lovers and for shackling pretty young women; judging from the images here, strong on whips, chains, and waggling tongues, he could also be the patron saint of heavy metal. At least one of these postcards served as the album cover for some now-forgotten 1960s rock band—Atomic Rooster? Mandrill?—and Krampus should sue the Rolling Stones for appropriating his lascivious tongue as their logo.

Some of the Krampus pictures are genuinely frightening—one surreal black-and-white photograph would have disturbed me as a child—and nearly all are beautiful examples of a macabre graphic style missing from contemporary holiday artwork. The book is printed on heavy stock but isn't well-bound, a shame as it's a book that rewards multiple viewings. Beauchamp's written notes are serviceable but left me wanting to know more about both the Krampus and the artists represented here. The latter, sadly, remain anonymous. The cards were and are avidly collected, and the book sent me to eBay to see what was available. The postcards go for twenty or thirty bucks a pop, which makes the book seem an even better deal.

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