Thursday, April 21, 2011

Dr. Black and the Guerrillia

Reading a second book by an author one finds intriguing is, of course, always an interesting experience.  You wonder if experience will lead to new appreciation, or if you'll ask yourself what you saw in this writer in the first place.  Happily, with Brendan Connell's novella "Dr. Black and the Guerrillia" I had the former experience.  One thing I noticed was that, for all its range and vivid imagery, Connell's style is remarkably.  Because he isn't bound by the pure realist's need for proportional description, he can put together only the necessary details for the image he's constructing, then move on to whatever comes next.  If written in a less compressed style, "Dr. Black..." would be a full-length novel, but it wouldn't be any richer or more striking than it is now.

And how rich and striking it is.  Like "The Life of Polycrates," it's a multi-faceted story, complete with footnotes, ellipses, and digressions, but if anything, the setting, a Central American country covered with jungles and beset by civil war, is even more appropriate for Connell's vivid descriptions of the bizarre and the decayed.  The protagonist, Dr. Black, has come to this country to do research for his book, A Key to All Gods, and hopes to encounter an elusive tribe, the Yaroa, and learn more about their mysterious deity.  Along the way, he'll find himself facing death, caught up in revolution, and having other strange experiences that will break down his scholarly view of the world.  The encounter between the scholarly mindset and the non-rational world of natives is a common enough literary subject, but few have written about it in Connell's distinctive style, which is impossible to epitomize because it shifts, chameleon-like, based on the needs of the moment.  These two paragraphs, though, may give a hint of how he can evoke the way disconnected images combine to create mood:
The bus, dashboard decorated with a brightly colored statuette of St. Jude and garlands of latex flowers, was crowded.  The vehicle drove madly along a poorly paved and precipitous road.  They drove past fields: men on horseback moved through cows and half-naked children waved from the front of half-dilapidated cottages.  The smell of manure, drifting through the open windows, invoked a vivid memory: his uncle's ranch in Wyoming, where as a boy he sometimes spent his summers...  And then there was the smell of isoamyl acetate.  He turned his head.  A woman next to him was eating a banana.

The bus passed a huge patch of brown dirt, a mining operation, where the forest had been bulldozed away to expose bauxite deposits.  The massive naked roots of great tropical trees hung out along the edge of the clearing like the arteries from the neck of a slaughtered cow.  Huge yellow vehicles, like fantastic beasts, moved through the earth and gnawed at the forest, as if famished.  The doctor inhaled the smell of upturned earth, heard the sound of distant chain-saws.  Then the bus turned and rolled along the side of a hill, past a rocky cliff face and into the town which sat in a declivity, a nest of shacks and newly constructed, concrete domiciles.  It was dirty and sad.  An unwholesome odor hung in the air:one of liquor, cheap tobacco, excrement of livestock and sour poverty.  It was a place where the only flourishing enterprises were prostitution and shops catering to miners and adventurers; a place where humans rotted, putrefied in the over-humid air of the jungle, beneath the sharp arrows of the sun.
As the novella progresses and Dr. Black delves deeper into this desolate yet beautiful land, some of the description, which mixes scientific and other formal language with unsettlingly visceral imagery, is almost Lovecraftian, in the loose sense of that term.  There's also a powerful depiction of a drug-induced religious vision, a jaggedly structured series of guerrilla attacks, and a helluva "flashes before your eyes" moment.  All this, and occasional moments of wry humor, in about 75 pages.  If you're already familiar with the style of Brendan Connell, this book, a handsome signed, limited edition with a few crude but very appropriate illustrations by (I assume) a relative of the author, is well worth the $20-$25 you'll pay for a secondhand copy.  If you haven't encountered him yet, check out The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children, or Unpleasant Tales, or Metrophilias, and enter the odd, creepy, fascinating world of this unclassifiable writer.

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