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A seductive novel of southern lyricism.
Monte Schulz's prose novel opens in the spring of 1929, as the 19-year-old consumptive farm boy Alvin Pendergast attends an ill-fated dance marathon he's too sickly to participate in. After a year of his life has been stolen by a sanitarium, Alvin knows he's relapsing, and dreads not only the drudgery of his family's homestead, but a return to the hospital. In this state of mind, an invitation for a late-night slice of pie is too seductive...
A seductive novel of southern lyricism.
Monte Schulz's prose novel opens in the spring of 1929, as the 19-year-old consumptive farm boy Alvin Pendergast attends an ill-fated dance marathon he's too sickly to participate in. After a year of his life has been stolen by a sanitarium, Alvin knows he's relapsing, and dreads not only the drudgery of his family's homestead, but a return to the hospital. In this state of mind, an invitation for a late-night slice of pie is too seductive to pass up and before he knows it, Alvin crosses the Mississippi River and finds himself working for a slick con artist named Chester Burke.
Alvin is no match for Chester, who's not merely a con man, but a gangster from Chicago, following the bootleg liquor trade through the small towns of America's middle border. With Alvin in tow, Chester's insouciant disregard for life serves him well as he embarks upon a series of bank robberies and senseless murders. All summer long, Chester assumes the role of a dark angel on Judgment day, cleansing the scrolls of those whose sad fortune had drawn them across his path. Too ill to flee, too morally weak to object, Alvin resigns himself to what seems like certain doom somewhere down the road. Fortunately, Alvin finds another companion on his journey, a lonely, eccentric, and grandiloquent dwarf named Rascal, whose own infirmity binds his and the farm boy's destiny together. Drawn deeper and deeper into Chester's murderous frolic, they come across a curious assortment of characters, from small town businessmen and religious kooks to wayward girls and dance contestants, spiritualists and sideshow freaks. Caught between Chester's villainy and Alvin's own physical deterioration, the young farm boy must make a decision: stick with Chester, who would surely kill him at the slightest hint of betrayal, or muster the courage to stake his life on faith in Rascal's clever plan to save them both. Tired of being afraid, Alvin finally grasps the need not only to outwit the gangster but to find another road to travel. What he discovers about the meaning of home offers a solution to escape and freedom.
This Side of Jordan is a thoroughly American novel told in the voice of a lost generation hurtling toward the Great Depression, and evokes a long ago America of crowded Main Streets and tourist camps, miles of cornfields, rural church¬es, and musty parlors. It ends on the fairgrounds of a traveling wagon circus that beckons gangster, farm boy, and dwarf toward a startling resolution, and a hard-fought absolution for the two young, frightened collaborators. The narrative of this novel has the momentum of a freight train, but told in the seductive, rhythmic tradition of Southern lyricism reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor and Truman Capote, and filled with vivid, outsized literary characters. If Jim Thompson and Carson McCullers went on a collaborative bender by kidnapping Holden Caulfield, Perry Smith, and Ignatius J. Reilly, they'd have come up with something like This Side of Jordan.
Posted November 11, 2009
This Side of Jordan is a beautiful Midwestern historical that captures the very essence of 1929.
Nineteen-year-old farm boy, Alvin Pendergast fears he will be sent back to the sanitarium for his relapsing tuberculosis. Enter sweet-talking, fancy-suit wearing, Chester Burke who offers Alvin a piece of pie and "a job." Soon Alvin has picked up Rascal, a towheaded dwarf (my very favorite character whose outrageous lines alone make this book worth every penny), robbed a bank, and felt the end of a gun barrel thrust against his spine. As the body count rises, the farm boy's health sags, the dwarf spins another tale--and the gangster picks up another woman.
Monte Schulz is a writer who loves language. His characters fold so gently into the story, their own deceptions and motivations become that of the reader's. If it weren't for the ironic fact that Alvin's traveling circus comes to a bizarre end under the tent of another's circus, one might forget this is all construct of the imagination. There are no shortcuts in this book, no tales left untold, and no characters left hanging (though I, personally, would have liked shy Alvin to kiss sweet Clare). It's been a while since I've read a book by an author whose dedication to the story was so self-evident. I look forward to the sequel, released next year.
P.S. Look up the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and maybe you'll get a glimpse into the villain's past.