In Other Words
Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno
Tragedy often masquerades as blessing. Bad fortune often follows good. Those sad facts echo in both John Steinbeck’s heart-breaking 1947 novella, The Pearl, and in Joe Meno’s recent novel, Marvel
and A Wonder. The blessing in Meno’s dark novel doesn’t arrive in a seashell but in a horse trailer. The animal inside is white, like a pearl. Its beauty and vigor offer promise, a way out to a man far down on his luck. But like Steinbeck’s pearl, the horse enables envy and greed. This result, so predictable yet still inexplicably against fortune’s promise, poses a question: Why do some people see the good luck of others as something they can steal?
Poverty, and the desperation that comes with it, is part of the answer. The mighty will fall, yes, but it’s mostly the poor who see their fortunes break bad. Meno’s tale is set in offthe-beaten-path Holly, Indiana, and is populated with the stereotypes of rural poverty. Failing farmers, runaways, and meth-heads go nowhere against a backdrop of bars, trailer parks, and cheap motels. A rich man or two lurk mostly out of sight. God is often evoked but seldom seen in this Bible-belt Gomorrah, and politics are reduced to prior arrests and back taxes. Yet folks seem more human than you’d expect. An older brother, fond of calling his younger adult brother a “candy-ass,” is caught crying. “You ain’t as hard as you act.” “What you heard,” responds the elder brother, “was the prayers of a lost soul coming to grips with the failure of the American dream.”
It’s 1997. Jim Hall is a widower whose preferred method of communication is CB radio. His thirty-seven-year-old daughter, addicted to painkillers, drops in and out of his life. Her fifteen-year-old son, Quentin, lives with his grandpa, sniffs glue, and wants to breed exotic reptiles. The overweight Quentin suffers from short-term optimism and other delusions. He sees a life before him despite the fact that he’s been abandoned by his addicted mother and a missing father. Jim’s own surviving optimism, witnessed by the G-rated fantasies generated when he runs into a pretty widower who’s having problems with coyotes, is tempered by the years. The boy has innocence and certain notions of spirituality that contrast with his grandpa’s bruised, worldly persistence. When one of the chicks they’re raising falls ill, the boy declares, “If he dies, I’m never going to church again ... that’s it for me and Jesus.” He tells his grandfather that he talks to plants and animals and can hear things “other mortals cannot.” Hall responds by asking his grandson if he ever keeps a thought to himself. Quentin comes to believe that the horse is the Holy Ghost, “that it was God made in the flesh and spirit; that while running there, its eyes showing silver, it knew everything the boy did, it knew his own mind, it could bear witness to his most private thoughts and sins.” Grandpa Hall names the horse John for John “the Baptizer.” Later, he stumbles onto the story of Salomé in his dead wife’s Bible.
It turns out that the grandfather, in a barroom visit, is the one who can’t keep things to himself. Two brothers with a planned meth-cooking project that never takes wing get wind of the equine godsend and plan to steal it. As things unravel, the horse’s role as Holy Ghost becomes more complicated. If things aren’t dark enough, we’re introduced to a half-hearted runaway teenager who seems to have mixed feelings about escaping a well-off grandfather. She’s being taken back by a tough-guy bounty hunter who mostly takes seriously his task of preventing the girl from the big, bad world, even as he’s physically abusive to a waitress he picks up. By the time all these threads tangle together, the characters have become more than stereotypes, and any notion of gifts from God has vanished.
Marvel and A Wonder is less surreal than Meno’s 2009 tale of a mixed-up middle class, The Great Perhaps, a study of frustration in a family that includes a paleontologist searching for a giant prehistoric squid. The folks of Holly are stoic in the face of inertia and affliction. They aren’t delusional until delusion comes their way. Marvel and A Wonder has some of the same tone of Meno’s celebrated Hairstyles of the Damned, the 2004 book that made his reputation as a student of teenage, thumb-sucking alienation. Quentin represents that here. But Marvel and A Wonder, set in another world entirely, is more cross-generational. Its characters may not be as finely drawn as Hairstyles’ teenage misfits. But the book seems a more mature work, with its complex view of human nature and its religious questions. It pays testament to human persistence, in the persons of grandfather and grandson, as they carry on to retrieve what’s theirs. Meno excels at setting a scene, and most chapters begin with a short, single paragraph, almost poetic in its description of place. One particularly vivid scene captures Hall’s daughter crawling around in broken glass on his kitchen floor, scratching up change. It’s this kind of tragic vision that makes Marvel And A Wonder something of a miracle. — Bill Kohlhaase