Tuesday, March 27, 2012

St. Austin Review on BLEEDER

The St. Austin Review, a classy, Catholic journal of the fine arts, just reviewed BLEEDER. Here it is:

John Desjarlais
Sophia Institute Press, 2009
272 pp., $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-93318-456-2
Reviewed by Dena Hunt

A widowed classics professor has been wounded by gunshots while trying to break up a fight between two students. He takes a leave of absence and goes to his brother’s hunting cabin in rural River Falls, Illinois, to recover and to write a book on Aristotle. There, by apparent accident, he meets a priest in a bookstore. Through a shared interest in the classics, they become friends. There is little else to draw them together: the professor is a non-Catholic and the priest is not just a local associate pastor, but a reputed stigmatic with healing powers. Then, suddenly and quite dramatically, the priest bleeds to death on the steps of the altar on Good Friday during the rite of Veneration of the Cross. When an inquest reveals the real cause of death, suspicion falls on the professor.

Bleeder is John Desjarlais’s first novel since Relics, published some years ago and now in its second printing. Readers familiar with Relics may be surprised by the author’s shift from historical adventure to contemporary mystery, but the departure does not lie in a shift in genre alone. Although, perhaps like many others, I enjoyed the amazing depth of historical research in Desjarlais’s first books, I must admit that in this new genre, we see a style far more mature, even innovative, and a much more subtle hand in characterization.

The character of Reed Stubblefield is an unlikely hero, suffering from chronic pain in his hip due to the injury. He uses a cane, performs exercises prescribed by his physical therapist, and takes a potent anti-depressant to control panic seizures and breathing difficulties. At the slightest provocation, he is afflicted with flashback memories of the long illness of his beloved wife of twenty years, who died of leukemia. Life is not easy for Stubblefield; he has problems with his insurance company, problems with his teaching schedule—one can forgive him if he seems a bit self-absorbed at times. He does not even have the Presbyterian faith he once had to sustain him, having allowed it to lapse rather like a magazine subscription that, in his painful attentiveness to his wife’s suffering, he somehow forgot to renew. It’s not that he is angry with God for allowing his wife to suffer and die. He’s not so dramatic as that; besides, one has the feeling that his already over-taxed emotional state could hardly afford serious anger. On the contrary, he seems a very nice, very sad, ordinary man, with whom every reader has something or other in common. Desjarlais’s characterization of Stubblefield is one of the novel’s best features.
But it is the highly textured first-person narration that merits the most attention. Internal monologue is smoothly woven into external events, drawing the reader into the direct experience of the narrator, even while those events are often interrupted by a re-living of painful memories of his wife’s suffering and death and the shooting incident. The interruptions are remarkably seamless, causing no confusion or irritation for the reader, even though their appearance is sudden and unannounced—just as real-life painful memories always are. But add to that the voice of Aristotle, Stubblefield’s constant mental companion, interjecting his own frequent italicized observations, and the result is a multi-layered narration that goes beyond standard stream-of-consciousness. Desjarlais accomplishes this feat with such ease and polish that the reader barely notices it.

What the reader does notice immediately is the descriptive prose, crisp and original, beginning without preamble on the first page: “The patchwork fields of rural Illinois rolled away from the ditches in soft waves, with snow lying in stripes across the rows of cornstalk stubble, like a lathered but unshaven face.” The description alone is a recurring delight, and when it is combined with the unusual access to the narrator’s consciousness, the result is an extraordinarily experiential read.

If the novel has a flaw, it’s in the plot structure of the denouement following the death of the priest. Until that point, the pace has been steady, while tension mounts in anticipation of the tragedy. After that point, however, direction seems obscure. News coverage of the event is quoted in its entirety for three pages, though the article provides only information that has already been revealed. Fewer than ten pages later, the entire police report is quoted, for five full pages—again providing no new information for the reader. Such insertions seem to have a kind of scrapbook effect for the author but add nothing to the story for the reader. When the inquest is scheduled for three weeks later, the three weeks simply disappear from the story, not only a radical departure from the steady pace of daily events up to that point, but also inexplicable, since we leave the hero’s brother lying in the intensive care unit of the hospital, following a near-fatal traffic accident.

Despite the difficulties with plot in the second half, Bleeder delivers well on its promise as a mystery novel. It keeps the reader trying to guess whodunit, just as a good mystery should; and, as the better representatives of its kind do, it also provides an ending of suspense and real surprise—which I will not spoil for readers by revealing. Any fan of mysteries would enjoy this novel, but for those who also enjoy reading the prose of a master craftsman, I would recommend it even more highly.

Dena Hunt lives in Georgia. Retired from teaching at Valdosta State University, she is working on her second novel.

(image: prototype cover for BLEEDER)

1 comment:

Peg Herring said...

Wow! This reviewer did some in-depth reviewing. Congrats, John!