Thursday, November 3, 2011
REVIEW OF ED LYNSKEY'S NOVEL LAKE CHARLES: A MYSTERY NOVEL
When I first picked up Ed Lynskey’s novel, Lake Charles, I was excited to read a book set in a place I used to live and had fond memories of—Lake Charles, Louisiana. As I began reading, I got a bit confused as the setting didn’t sound anything like the place I’d lived in.
Turns out, it wasn’t. The Lake Charles of Lynskey’s novel was another lake entirely, a man-made body of water created by the TVA in Tennessee.
Also turns out, it didn’t matter. This was as dark and as Gothic as anything else Southern, and it could have worked just as well if it had been set in the Louisiana town of the same name.
And, it is dark and very Gothic! Atmosphere up the yazoo. Or… kudzu… Precisely my cup of tea. An absolutely amazing novel.
Rather than go into the plot points, which others, better qualified for that kind of stuff do a better job than I ever could, I just want to talk about my visceral reactions. First, I never consciously seek out symbolism in novels. Symbols mostly just get in the way of enjoying the story. But, there are some in here that were so well-done and so organic to the tale that not only did they not interfere with the reading pleasure, but caused it to transcend what will be termed “genre” literature by some into something I feel would more accurately be looked at as simply literature. Good and even great literature.
The lake itself is the most pervading character in the novel. Its water is slimy, odoriferous, and malignant. I’m assuming Lynskey intended it to stand for things manmade, things our modern civilization have wrought to what used to be a wondrous example of nature with a capital N. It reminded me of what uber-agent Donald Maass once related to me as being one of the elements that all great books contained—a magical place. A physical place in the best novels where seminal events took place. We were talking about that at a workshop we were both appearing at a couple of years ago, and it dawned on me that he was exactly right. “Like the street in Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River,” I exclaimed. “The story begins there with the boy’s kidnapping and it comes up at crucial times and ends there—in the movie with the Sean Penn character, where he slumps to the curb when he realizes the monstrosity of his murder of that same boy now grown, years later.”
“Exactly,” Don said, and we were off to a discussion of similar mystical/mythical places in literature.
Well, add Lake Charles to that list. Like Dennis Lehane with his Boston Southy street, like Raymond Chandler with L.A., like Ellen Gilchrist with New Orleans, like Russell Banks with various locales—Lynskey has made a setting a living, breathing character.
A dark,foreboding, malignant, malevolent character. Since reading this book, I’ve seen the lake in my nightmares at night and I always awake drenched with sweat. Only the best of books have that power and this one qualifies. It’s a story of loyalties—both familial and friendship, a tale of the evilness of drugs and what they’ve done to society, and, in the end, and for me, most of all it’s a look back at the days of my youth growing up in East Texas where people took care of their problems themselves and if it took violence to enact justice, well, violence is what took place. We didn’t look for the police or the courts or lawyers to solve our problems, but acted as men and took care of them ourselves with whatever it took. In these days of “social consciousness” or whatever they call it, taking matters into one’s own hands is frowned on and will likely get you called out on talk shows, but… man-oh-man! I long for those days!
This is a vigilante novel and an example of how vigilantes aren’t always the bad and nasty thing they’re often made out to be. It seems to me that this and novels and movies of this sort are hugely popular simply because there are a lot of us who long for those “good old days” when people took care of their own problems and didn’t depend on others. Brendan Fishback, the protagonist, hooks up with his best friend’s father, Mr. Kuzawa, as they team up to avenge the murder of Kuzawa’s son and Brendan’s best friend, Cobb, and to find the kidnappers of Brendan’s twin sister Edna by the same folks, and the result is Southern justice of the sort that makes you jump up and cry: “Yeah!” when they triumph over evil.
This is just one of the best novels I’ve read this year, simply put.