If you read Eric Scott Fischl’s brilliant debut, Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show, and expect the follow-up to offer more of the same, you’re in for a surprise. The Trials of Solomon Parker is a sequel that isn’t really a sequel—and it’s so much better than the first book (which I just called brilliant). With his sophomore effort, Fischl launches into a whole new territory, inspired by stories told by the Native tribes of the regon. It’s a dark tale of gods, the games they play with human lives, and how a man who’s lost everything deals with it.
Sol Parker was a minor character in Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show., and Fischl tells his story here, framed within the mythological story of two brothers, Maatakssi and Siinatssi, a Cain and Abel-esque pair. Maataskii kills Siinatssi by accident. When the gods—the Above Ones—come to mete out punishment, they take into consideration Maataskii’s genuine regret and decide to gift him with both a boon and a punishment, and decree that these two things would be one and the same.
Sol Parker has married Elizabeth, and they have a son, Owen. Billy Morgan is a young man from the nearby reservation whom Sol has taken under his wing, treating him as a sort of second son. They soon discover their lives are bound together, for better or worse, when Billy’s uncle, the shaman Marked Face, presents Sol, who is grieving for the recent death of Owen in a mine fire, with an opportunity he can’t resist. It’s a gamble—a dice game, Sol’s biggest weakness. If he wins, Marked Face will give him the thing he desires most.
A boon, and a punishment: one and the same.
Sol wins the game, and the prize he collects from Marked Face is both his heart’s desire, and the worst thing that could happen to him. It’s no coincidence the novel begins with a quote from Job, the Biblical story of a man who lives a righteous life but yet is plagued with tragedy. Once we reach this point in Sol and Billy’s story, we get the sense the book isn’t just about them, but something greater—what a man might do in the face of impossible tragedy, and what he might do when he realizes his attempts to fix it have no consequence. The story unfolds across multiple timelines, as Billy and Sol find themselves traveling deeper and deeper into darkness.
The research and attention to historical detail that so elevated Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show is only improved upon here. In addition to Fischl’s dark philosophical musings, it’s easy to become immersed in the gritty depiction of Butte, Montana at the turn of the century. The recreation of the miners’ backbreaking work under terrifying and often deadly conditions is so visceral, it’s almost claustrophobic; Fischl excels at weaving in the historical details of protests and strikes that helped pave the way for the creation of unions fighting for workers’ rights and workplace safety.
There is a lot going on in this novel, but it never feels overstuffed: fascinating history lessons, Native mythological archetypes, compelling and broken characters, and damn good storytelling elevates The Trials of Solomon Parker to whole new level of weird western. Two excellent books in a calendar year—Fischl is definitely a writer to watch.