If Shakespeare and Faulkner had a knife fight in a back alley, the blood they spilled would be the ink Ian Weir used to record The Death and Life of Strother Purcell. The tale of a legendary gunman and his outlaw brother is as mythic as it is down and dirty, crossing years, borders and near every moral and ethical boundary imaginable as the estranged brothers head for a reckoning that is sure to be as apocalyptic as it is inevitable. It’s fit for those who like the westerns of Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx in equal measures: as literary as it is lurid, as epic as it is eerie. Picture John Wayne riding into a Greek tragedy and you’ll have a notion of the peculiar brilliance that is The Death and Life of Strother Purcell.
In 1876, the fabled lawman Strother Purcell disappears into a winter storm in the mountains of British Columbia, while hunting down his outlawed half-brother. Sixteen years later, the wreck of Purcell resurfaces – derelict and homeless – in a San Francisco jail cell. And a failed journalist named Barrington Weaver conceives a grand redemptive plan. He will write Purcell’s true-life story. All it requires is a final act…
What unfolds is an archetypal saga of obsession, lost love, treachery, and revenge. A deadpan revisionist Western, refracted through a Southern Gothic revenge tragedy, The Death and Life of Strother Purcell is a novel about two cursed brothers, a pair of eldritch orphans, the vexed nature of truth, and the yearnings of that treacherous sonofabitch the human heart.
What is there to say about Certain Dark Things, the vampire novel by Silvia Moreno-Garcia set in Mexico City that mixes up the entire cinematic, literary and mythic history of vampires with the narco conflicts of the Mexican drug wars, run through a noir filter with the thriller levels cranked up, to create her own dangerous species of vampire novel?
What is there to say other than read it?
Happinesswise by Jonathan Bennett could just as easily have been called Intimatewise or Intimacywise or some such thing. While the poems are all over the map when it comes to style and subject matter, at their core they are glimpses into the secret lives we all carry within us.
The book opens with a series of poems called Palliative Care Reflective Portfolio, which yes, are about death, but in that are also about entire lives lived. The poems feature notes about end-of-life care and the mundane minutia of death, or at least of putting off death for a few more ragged heartbeats: “the machine drone, the urine sting, the sour C. diff smell, the pump throb, the infection control, latex-free signage.” But the clinical language of the palliative care experience are countered in the same poems with the beautiful, transcendent moments of life, the memories that actually make us what we are: “tinkling wind chimes, your still-beautiful clavicle” and “My son’s first steps – across the lichen at the lake.” In an interview, Bennett states these poems are inspired by his own experiences working in a hospital and reading doctors’ portfolios: “Somewhere in the fog of pain meds and held hands, of DNR’s and oncoming grief, people retell stories that have bound them to one another over the course of a lifetime. Or else they sit in silence and just know, together. Is this happiness? Is it the end of happiness? These are the things the poem pursues.”
While the Palliative Care Reflective Portfolio is not specifically about Bennett, other poems do provide more intimate glimpses into his life. The poems found in Neurotypical Sketches offer insights into Bennett’s relationship with his autistic son – and insights perhaps into his relationship with autism, or at least autism as he has experienced it. There’s a map drawn by his son, Thomas, and moment after moment of a life transformed by something ultimately unknowable:
“He asks: Do cyclops blink or wink?
We laugh and and I ask him to tell me
the riddle of Theseus’s ship again
because I can’t get enough of him
charting his way through a paradox.
And to hear him argue the case
for Bigfoot is to doubt everything
you thought was true in the universe.”
There are other examples of this intimacy throughout the book – the series Concession Line Signs uses signs in Bennett’s region for inspiration, and as a vegetarian I certainly found a connection with his poem “Vegetarians Use the Back Door.” But really, it’s one of those collections best read and not talked about too much, because its true power is in how you will find yourself in the poems. How are you doing, happinesswise?