In Other Words

Marvel and a Won­der by Joe Meno

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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

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