The Enigmatic Pilot: A Tall Tale Too Trueby Kris Saknussemm
In 1844, in a still-young America, the first intimations of civil war are stirring throughout the land. In Zanesville, Ohio, the Sitturd family—Hephaestus, a clubfooted inventor/b>/i>
Enigmatic Pilot is Kris Saknussemm’s outrageously brilliant yet profoundly moving exploration and excavation of the American dream—and nightmare.
In 1844, in a still-young America, the first intimations of civil war are stirring throughout the land. In Zanesville, Ohio, the Sitturd family—Hephaestus, a clubfooted inventor; his wife, Rapture, a Creole from the Sea Islands; and their prodigiously gifted six-year-old son, Lloyd, whose libido is as precocious as his intellect—are forced to flee the only home they have ever known for an uncertain future in Texas, whence Hephaestus’s half-brother, Micah, has sent them a mysterious invitation, promising riches and wonders too amazing to be entrusted to paper.
Thus begins one of the most incredible American journeys since Huck Finn and Jim first pushed their raft into the Mississippi. Along the way, Lloyd will learn the intricacies of poker and murder, solve the problem of manned flight, find—and lose—true love, and become swept up in an ancient struggle between two secret societies whose arcane dispute has shaped the world’s past and threatens to reshape its future. Each side wants to use Lloyd against the other, but Lloyd has his own ideas—and access to an occult technology as powerful as his imagination.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
The language is superb, the subject deliciously original and the story like nothing else I've read. This book is hilariously funny and grim at the same time. I feel privileged to read it. There's a new star up there. Kris Saknussemm is a brilliant writer. Enigmatic Pilot could have been written by a stripped down Pynchon. It's not just tasty it's delicious.
"Enigmatic Pilot is a rip-roaring trip through a fantastic mid-19th century America...written in the spirit of Mark Twain's novelistic journeys."
-The Wall Street Journal
Kris Saknussemm's Enigmatic Pilot, with its shades of Twain and Melville's Confidence Man, its own unique style and vision, sense of humor and remarkable characters, is a balls out adventure story, a fascinating "historical" account of the Civil War era, a love story, and a mirror within which a reader might glimpse the current state of the union.
A tapestry of wonders, a new American myth.
Praise for Kris Saknussemm’s Zanesville
“Part picaresque, part brilliantly inventive black comedy, Zanesville is one of the most creative, edgy, and entertaining novels sf has spawned in a decade.”—Booklist (starred review)
“A savage, fiercely intelligent satire.”—January magazine
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Read an Excerpt
Time of the End
Where does the time go? The year is 1844. Karl Marx is in Paris playing indoor tennis with Friedrich Engels, who has just authored The Condition of the Working Class in England. In Iceland the last pair of great auks have been killed, while in the booming and embattled United States the first minstrel shows are packing in crowds in the East, as former slaves Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass lecture on abolitionism, and hosts of eastern white folk are packing up and heading west via the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. War looms with Mexico, the lunatic bankrupt Charles Goodyear will receive a meaning- less patent for the vulcanization of rubber, the shrewd bigot Samuel Finley Breese Morse takes credit for inventing the telegraph, and a deluded mob murders the deluded visionary Joseph Smith, Jr., and his brother Hyrum in a jail in Carthage, Illinois. Many people are asking themselves, “What hath God wrought?”
One such individual in Zanesville, Ohio, was just straggling out of a peculiar iron sphere, about the size of three B?&?O hopper cars, which sat balanced in a cradle of railroad ties ringed at a distance of ten feet by an assemblage of timepieces that ranged from hand-rolled, graduated beeswax candles to sundials of various descriptions, a tribe of hourglasses, and an assortment of borer-eaten cuckoo clocks—along with a once dignified but now gaunt and weather-faded grandfather clock that leaned into its own shadow like an old coot trying not to nod off in the middle of a story.
The bantamish man of apparently mixed breed wedged himself out of a fire grate–size hatch in the sphere and fished a pocket watch from his overalls. The watch casing was silver, but it had the dirty, worn fog of lead now. Still, the gears and springs gave out a satisfying report, as loud as the grasshoppers in the grain bin and as strong and regular as a healthy heartbeat.
“Hephaestus,” he heard a woman’s voice insinuate.
The name mingled with the call of the clocks, which began to chime and ping and cluck, not quite at once but close, followed a silent moment later by an answering echo from inside the sphere, which caused the man’s paprika-colored face to brighten for an instant. He heaved himself down to the ground, mopping his slick scalp with a handkerchief, and glanced up at the slanting August sun.
“Hephaestus . . .” he heard his wife, Rapture, call gently again.
The man, who was now standing in the circle of timepieces, looked scrawnier than the bulk of his cranium would have suggested. A scarecrow that had turned into a blacksmith, you might have said, and this would not have been far wrong. His name was Hephaestus Sitturd, and he was indeed skilled as a blacksmith, as well as a wood turner, cooper, tinker, and carpenter of great ingenuity (but no discipline); he was also a middling gunsmith, a dedicated fisherman, a maker of moonshine, a spinner of yarns, and a rhabdomancer (water diviner) of some repute. His white father had been the master mechanic re- sponsible for the operation of a large cotton gin in Virginia un- til a religious vision prompted a change of career to Baptist preacher, a vagabond calling he set out to pursue with his son Micah Jefferson Sitturd, following the loss of the boy’s mother to peritonitis. This led to various digressions as a keelboat pilot, dance-hall tenor, tent boxer, and garrulous rainmaker. Along the way he met a half-breed Shawnee woman who was related to the great Chief Tecumseh and fathered another son, to whom he gave the name Hephaestus because of one slightly clubbed foot.
This clubfooted boy was the man who now stood in the Ohio sun beside the hollow iron sphere he had forged and hammered together himself. The rainmaker minister and his half-Indian bride were long dead, and Hephaestus had been left with their crumbling ruin of rabbit-weed farm on the outskirts of Zanes?ville, overlooking the Licking River. Half brother Micah was believed to be a Texas Ranger who had taken a Comanche wife, but Hephaestus had not heard from him in years. His family now consisted of his wife, Rapture, and their son, Lloyd, and they were such a blessing to him that he thought of little else—save his inventions.
Unfortunately, he was afflicted with that American misconception that the world was in constant, dire need of a better mousetrap, and that he was just the man for the job. He had, in fact, invented several different kinds of rodent traps (over fifty at the time), as well as a series of wind-driven bird frighteners, an automatic fishhook, a foolproof tree straightener, a hand-?operated drum-cylinder motion-picture machine (which had been dismantled by the local church matrons because he had made the tactical error of demonstrating the capability with some rather bold Parisian postcards that a man in a marmot hat had sold him in Cleveland), a flyswatter that could also be used for toasting bread, as well as a wide range of outside-the-box ideas for things like disposable dentures and the creation of a pigeon-winged federal postal system.
The mania had started innocently enough, as such things often do, when he was still a wet-behind-the-ears young boy and his father had come home wounded from fighting in Benoni Pierce’s Light Horse Company at the Lakes in the War of 1812. Laid up as he was, the old man could not go fox hunting in the Moxahala Hills, which had been his great passion, and so was forced to sell his beloved hunting dogs—or would have been forced to had not the young Hephaestus hit upon the idea of using the dogs to run a drum treadmill to power the drill for gun boring. Gunsmithing became the family’s primary source of income until the father died of pneumonia.
Now, years later, the sphere was by far Hephaestus’s most ambitious undertaking. It had exhausted all his resources as well as his family’s finances and patience. Yet he was intensely proud of it, although he knew there was still much work to be done—and so little time. Time was the problem, for the sphere was not simply a hollow iron ball. Oh, no. It was meant to be a refuge, a shelter, an ark—the Time Ark, he called it, or, in sour mash–fueled moments, the Counterchronosphere.
Although not a full practicing Christian, he had become influenced by William Miller, the numerically minded New York State farmer who had worked out that the world was soon going to end or that Christ would return, depending on your point of view. Miller, who based his theory on the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, supported by calculations from Ezekiel and Numbers, had taken to sermonizing and lecturing at camp meetings back in 1831, and had since become a national and indeed international celebrity, with several newspapers devoted to spreading the word of imminent advent and hopeful paradise for the worthy.
Believing firmly in mathematics and partially in the Good Book—and being superstitious about his wife’s name and undecided about the question of “worthiness,” Hephaestus had become a default Millerite—and a very worried one at that. After all, a comet had been spotted in recent times, and just the year before a dairy farmer in Gnadenhutten had found a cow pie in the shape of the Virgin Mary. Clearly, the world was working up to something decisive. So Hephaestus had turned the bulk of his attention to the problem of how to escape time and so shield his loved ones from doomsday.
Many exceptional minds and more than a few competent engineers would have been daunted by such a challenge. But not the Sitturd patriarch. When not hobbling between the forge and the distillery shed, he pored over both engineering pamphlets and Scripture, devotional tomes and Mechanics Hall literature—anything and everything he could get his hands and mind on to help answer the eschatological call.
However, with the revised countdown on to the Lord’s Return (the original Miller prediction had put it in 1843) He?phaestus was forced to admit that the technical issues were still troubling. In the evenings when he sat watching the fireflies blinking in the pea patch—his wife, Rapture, brewing some ?extract of wolf mint, dressing buckskins, or working at her spinning wheel; his son, Lloyd, cataloguing his trilobites or dreaming of his twin sister, Lodema, who had died at birth—doubts would overcome Hephaestus. It was when these doubts took their darkest form that the sphere grew hopelessly heavy. Gleaming in the sunshine now, it appeared to him to be cumbersome beyond all description—ridiculous—so that all his reckonings, all his research, shone back in mockery from the surface of the hot metal.
“It needs to move,” a boy’s voice announced. “Time is a vibration. So the Ark must vibrate in time with Time—to become transparent.”
As remarkable as it may seem, the speaker was none other than his five-year-old son, Lloyd, and as the boy spoke a wishbone and paper airship wafted around the door of the barn. Powered by miniature spindlewood propellers and guided by rudder wings of dried bluegill fins, the delicate machine floated above the goat pasture, then around the barn, and finally over the peppergrass that surrounded their corncrib house, landing intact just beside the man’s mangled foot. Hephaestus looked at the airship in dismay and then over at Lloyd, the craft’s designer and fabricator, knowing that the ingenious trinket had been constructed in but a matter of minutes.
The child’s inventive life had begun in the cradle (or so it seemed to Hephaestus). In addition to a hyper-accelerated acquisition of language skills, although small physically, the boy’s manual dexterity was unnaturally adept while he was still theoretically confined to the old kindling scuttle that had been converted into his bassinet. His curiosity was inexhaustible, and by the time most children are just beginning to make sense of a rattle and how to move from all fours to wobbly legs, young Lloyd had already demonstrated an almost disturbing grasp of the principles of basic machines: the lever, the wheel, the pulley, the inclined plane, and the screw—even the mysterious utility of gears.
Inclined to wander, as well as to disassemble and reassemble anything his little hands touched, not long after his second birthday it had become necessary to remove him from the house and install him in his own dedicated section of the family barn, where Hephaestus kept his tools and maintained his blacksmith’s forge.
Here the father had designed a kind of labyrinth to keep the boy’s insatiable sense of experimentation occupied (and also to keep him somewhat protected from the prying eyes of visit- ing neighbors, whose dry, thick Zanesville tongues took to wagging whenever anything, let alone anyone, out of the ordinary crossed their paths). This combination of protective and distractive measures proved to have remarkable consequences.
What to other parents might have seemed a rather dangerous obstacle course of materials of various kinds (the debris of Hephaestus’s own inventions, miscellaneous bits of scrap metal and lumber, spare tools, and the like) provided yet more spark to the boy’s intellect and hunger for creation. To the blacksmith’s astonishment, the miniature minotaur embraced the labyrinth and began turning it into a working machine of its own unique kind, so that he was soon in no sense constrained by it but using it in the prosecution of new discovery and manufacture.
“If I didn’t know better,” Hephaestus said to himself, “I’d say that he had somehow a very good idea of what a first-rate metal shop, carpenter’s barn, and apothecary’s formulary looked like.”
It was not long before the supposed labyrinth become ?laboratory and workshop began to produce its own strange offspring—articulated puppets, for instance, brutish in appearance, perhaps, but subtle in their capabilities.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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