This is the first in an irregular series where I'll review books that, while not horror fiction, may be of interest to this blog's readers for one reason or another.
The jacket copy of The Book of Bunk: A Fairy Tale of the Federal Writers' Project describes it as an "unclassifiable explosion of storytelling," and while that may be a little histrionic, I can confirm from personal experience that it's basically accurate. You see, my bookshelves are arranged by genre, and having finished The Book of Bunk I was very much at a loss as to where to put it. Glen Hirshberg's other books are in the bookcase set aside for horror fiction: The Two Sams and American Morons because they include ghost and horror stories, and the novel The Snowman's Children because, while not horror per se, its grim atmosphere and its focus on the weight of the past make it close enough to fit the bill. The Book of Bunk, on the other hand, includes only a single fleeting incident that captures that tone, and while it's a heck of a scene, it's not enough to make the book horror. In the end, I decided to put the book on my science fiction/fantasy shelves, where it now nestles between Theodora Goss's In the Forest of Forgetting and Robert E. Howard's The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. In a way it doesn't fit there either, because none of the book's events can really be called supernatural. They're unlikely, in the best sense of the word, the "things should happen like this" sense, which is why the subtitle labels it "a fairy tale," but that's not the same thing.
The point here is that The Book of Bunk really is unclassifiable, in the best sense of that word. As such, it's unfortunately no surprise that the novel was unable to find publication with a large press, and was released in a limited edition by Earthling Publications. That edition is already out of print at the publisher, and I snagged what I believe to have been Amazon.com's last copy, but various specialty book dealers still have copies at or close to cover price. I do hope that eventually a press with larger reach picks up this novel, because it deserves a much wider audience than a 415-copy edition can ever bring it.
The Book of Bunk is the story of Paul Dent, who, after burying his father, leaves behind college to ride the rails. Before he knows quite what has happened, a young woman named Grace has hired him for the Federal Writers' Project, a branch of the WPA, and set him up in the small town of Trampleton, North Carolina, where he's supposed to research local history and geography for one of 48 state guides the Project is assembling. But what Paul discovers in Trampleton in 1936 is a web of interconnected stories, too large, too strange, and too dramatic for any guidebook to capture them. And the arrival of Paul's charismatic brother Lewis sets in motion a chain of events that will reveal secrets stranger still... and lead, in the end, to great tragedy.
That may not sound terribly interesting to you. I'll confess that at first it didn't to me, either, which is why I took so long to acquire the book even though Hirshberg is one of my favorite writers. And as I read the first half of The Book of Bunk, I was a little uneasy, wondering whether the gentle pace and quietly stylish prose would ever propel me toward something more interesting. I also worried, based on the novel's framing story, that it would turn into a didactic parable about the value of art and the foolishness of certain politicians. But then came the arresting, spooky scene I alluded to above, which was followed in turn by a revelation that added another layer of complexity to the carefully-constructed relationships among the novel's large supporting cast. I read the last third of the book in a white heat, and closed it in awe at the multi-faceted ending, which combines violent resolution with subtle ambiguity and offers hope and melancholy in about equal doses. This is a novel that takes in a lot-- sibling rivalry, race relations, government hearings, orphans, knife-juggling-- without feeling anything other than lean and poetic. All this, and a cameo appearance by... but, as an Amazon.com reviewer points out, it would be churlish to give that away. If this sounds at all promising, get your copy of The Book of Bunk while you can, because it won't be too long before the few remaining copies dry up and prices sky-rocket, and there is, alas, no guarantee that this fine literary-historical novel will find the wider publication it ought to enjoy.