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Towns Without Rivers

by Michael Parker (Perennial, 2001)

Michael Parker’s second novel more or less picks up where his first, Hello Down There, left off. The book’s main protagonist, Reka Speight (pronounced Spate), has just been released from prison for killing her lover, Edwin, a heroin addict. Reka’s method of execution in the first book, we learn, was to plunge an overdose into the self-destructive young man. The odd twist is that Edith, Edwin’s mother, becomes a surrogate mother to Reka while she’s serving time for her crime, and is there to assist her upon her release. It’s touching, in a way, and we can guess various psychological reasons why she would do such a thing (still, Parker offers no such reasons, so it’s not wholly believable).

It’s 1959. Once Reka has returned to her hometown of Trent, North Carolina — a place she’s determined to leave as soon as she can — she interviews for a job as a traveling book salesperson. The company is looking mostly for college students — which Reka is not. But company rep Bob Smart takes to Reka in the way married traveling salesmen often do (especially when confronted with street-savvy but nice-looking girls like our protagonist).

Reka, though very determined to, as they say, “rise above her raising,” wants that job, and has no qualms about sleeping with Bob the very first night he takes her out to dinner. She spends a lot of time ruminating about her life, present and past, about her dead lover, and about her little brother, Randall. The story’s other principal character, Randall is a luckless but equally streetwise youth. And we all know that trouble follows on the heels of such young men.

Sixteen-year-old Randall, like Reka, does what he needs to survive. He works at the shipyard with his and Reka’s older brother, Hal, with whom he also lives. (Hal has long since disowned Reka.) Randall ends up seducing, or being seduced by, Hal’s girlfriend, Delores. Obviously, this situation is only temporary, and Randall moves on, searching for Reka and surviving stints as a nude model and forest-dweller along the way.

Reka and Randall are bound together by that familial bond more dominant in Southern Gothic stories than any other kind. One is reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian — which, for its time, was fresh and startling. But its theme has been so overused since that it has become nearly de rigueur for the genre. Add to this a whiskey-soaked, embittered father who meets his end while fulfilling a dream of wading in the ocean for the first time, and you have the makings of a modern-day Faulknerian tale, minus all those troubling cryptic passages.

The writing is as solid as stone, but the story’s pace is as slow as a river in August. And this river has many branches and streams down which the author insists on taking us. One of the many tributaries he should have foregone is this: “She passed by a Montgomery Ward, then Marshall Field’s, which took up an entire city block. She loitered in front of each one of the shop windows, which lined the street one after another. When she came to Sears Roebuck she felt a little breathless, for it seemed unreal for her to stand in front of this place she had never imagined existing except in the catalogue that her father had stashed in the outhouse when they lived in the country.” Breathless! But worse, the paragraph doesn’t end there: “Her sisters used to read the Sears catalogue nightly, planning their wardrobes, picking out house fixtures and bedspreads, toys and dollhouses for their future broods. It was the only book she ever saw them read … ” One is left to ask: What’s the point? Were such little side jaunts rare, they wouldn’t be minded. But they are rife as feeder streams into a very long river, so many and so frequent that the tale takes on an almost stream-of-consciousness quality, delaying the real story of Reka and Randall. If you’re content riding an inner tube down a river without towns, symbolically speaking, you’ll most likely enjoy this book.

Michael Parker will sign copies of his book at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe at 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 8. For details, call 254-6734.

Eternal Treblinka

by Dr. Charles Patterson (Lantern Books, 2002)

Handed this book, I tossed it aside, hoping I’d have enough other books to review that I could let this one pass. Knowing what little I did about the Nazi death camp the book is named for, I didn’t, I must confess, feel like spending several days poring over the subject and feeling uncomfortable (I’d much rather read a nice e.e. cummings poem).

But, to my surprise, this is an interesting and compelling book. Including quotes from local animal-rights activist Stewart David, Eternal Treblinka posits the theory that we humans would be a less-violent species to each other if we’d stop our slaughter of animals. In other words, if we’d begin to treat animals with the respect and care we seek from other humans, the world would be a much better place to live.

Seems like a half-baked idea — until you read Dr. Patterson’s many anecdotes, extensive research and well-documented history. The book quotes the famous and gifted author, Isaac Bashevis Singer, as having once written, “In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.” And though it may be a bit of a stretch, the author proposes that, after observing the assembly-line slaughter of animals in the Chicago slaughterhouses at the turn of the century, Henry Ford applied the same thinking to building automobiles; the book further asserts that this concept eventually took root in Nazi Germany.

An early quote establishes Patterson’s sense of human history in relationship to animal slaughter: “The very beginning of Genesis tells us that God created man in order to give him dominion over fish and fowl and all creatures. Of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse. There is no certainty that God actually did grant man dominion over other creatures. What seems more likely, in fact, is that man invented God to sanctify the dominion that he had usurped for himself over the cow and the horse. Yes, the right to kill a deer or a cow is the only thing all of mankind can agree upon, even during the bloodiest of wars.”

The human mindset, Patterson further suggests, has nearly always been that it’s our right to domesticate or kill any creature, including other humans, to whom we feel superior. And when one thinks of such conditions as slavery, the Holocaust and the current situation in the Middle East, maybe Dr. Patterson’s theories carry more truth than we’d care to believe.

This is a highly revelatory, if disturbing, read — and it would certainly be interesting to read an equally qualified argument opposing the author’s theories. For instance: Even if the world population had the will to stop all consumption of animals and their by-products tomorrow, would that ultimately change our nature?

But I must say, for a guy who has enjoyed his share of burnt meat, I’ll never look at a Big Mac the same way again.

[Bill Brooks teaches the Blue Ridge Writers Program. He is the author of 10 novels. For a complete list of local author events, see Xpress’ weekly arts & entertainment calendar.]

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