[fyi: this is not one of the books I've pegged in my search for the great American novel this year, but it's definitely one I won't forget.]
I'm going to do something I never do here which is to start with what others have said about this book. I've seen reviews where people have stated that this collection of short stories reminds them of the writings of Poe, Conan-Doyle, Steinbeck, Hitchcock(?), Faulkner, Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson, none of which I found to be the case. The author, John Vanderslice, has a unique voice of his own, something that becomes evident while reading the first story. I don't often read short stories except for in dark fiction/horror (which I think is the perfect vehicle for that genre), but when I do, if I can't get past the opener, I put the book down & think about maybe coming back to it sometime in the future. That didn't happen here. And with only a few bumpy spots along the way, the strong start to this collection was reinforced by the terrific writing that continued over the course of the book. It's a book that still haunts me after having finished it.
There are eleven stories in this book that are united by the virtue of being set on the island of Nantucket, where history moves from 1795 to the present. Another binding element is that the main characters in each and every story come to some sort of personal and yet disturbing revelations that leave the reader feeling just a bit off kilter afterwards, and this tone establishes itself in the first story and doesn't let up for a moment. It's also a book that is tinged with more than hints of sadness and despair. I won't go into each and every story, but the first tale, "Guilty Look," sets that tone in a tale about an investigation into a bank robbery, one based on a true event (btw, don't click that link until after you've read the story), and one that should end up leaving you with hackles raised on your neck as you realize exactly what's happening here. My personal favorite is "Taste," the story of an ex-whaling ship captain who, when faced with death on the high seas, has done what many a sailor has done in his place. Think Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea or Owen Chase's firsthand account called The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex, and you get the drift. Years later in 1846, he still hasn't gotten over the incident, suffering from the equivalent of PTSD for years and leaving his emotional trauma to manifest itself in a very bizarre, horrific and ultimately heartbreaking way.
Five of these stories are definitely more historical in nature: "Guilty Look" deals with a real robbery but it also incorporates the irony of the slow-building Quaker domination over all aspects of society; "King Philip's War" relives the clashes between Native Americans and white settlers in its own way; "On Cherry Street" and "Taste" center around Nantucket's whaling industry, and "How Long Will You Tarry" raises the ugly specter of racism. The others have a more personal, less-historical flavor but are as well written as the first group of stories, although my favorites were most definitely among the first five. All of these stories manage to get into the heads of the characters -- and it is never pretty. Who would have thought that an island where the beautiful people go for pleasure would hide so much darkness?
I'm become very leery at taking on works from a press I've never heard of, but in this case it was a gamble won. More than anything, I loved the disturbing tone of these tales that often (especially in the last story, "Island Fog") move into the realm of the strange; the historical aspect of this collection also appealed to me in a big way. It's definitely a book that will stay with me for a very long while.
I read this for and would like to thank TLC book tours, and my thanks to the author for my copy.
I'm the first of many readers, so if you'd care to follow this book as it makes the rounds, click here for the schedule.