Note: This post contains obscenities used in quotation.
When I look back on my undergraduate literature education, I often find myself thinking about Dr. Leland Ryken. With a predilection for sweater vests and a wit dryer than the Sahara after a sandstorm, LeeLee (as he liked to be called) made an impression. He loved to comment archly on the inadequacy of students' attire. ("My, John, looking like we escaped from the asylum today, aren't we?") He'd engineer comically mismatched romantic pairings in front of the entire class. He'd puff candy cigarettes while reading avant-garde verse. In addition to all that, he also taught us about literature, everything from explicating poetry to understanding the basics of critical theory to helping us discern what an author would want us to think about a protagonist. "Tell me," he say, "would you want this character for your roommate?" It's a question I kept circling back to while reading Chuck Wendig's supernatural noir Blackbirds. Why? Because that book's main character makes just as much of an impression as LeeLee.
Miriam Black has wandering feet, a nigh-perpetual nicotine buzz, a predilection for bad boys, and a tongue so sharp it could cut you. Oh, and if she touches you, she can tell you how you'll die. Skin on skin, that's all it takes for her to see your final moments. Hard to put down roots when you have a "gift" (note the quotation marks) like that. But it's pretty easy to snatch a wallet from a still-warm body. Miriam has tried to warn people before, attempted to steer them away from the train tracks and the dark alleys, the bottle and the blow. Never worked. So now she drifts from state to state, town to town, bed to bed. She's content to profit from watching fate unfold -- until she meets Louis. A goodhearted bear of a man, he picks her up while she's hitchhiking one night. And as he offers her his hand, she sees the inside of a lighthouse. She sees him tied to a chair. She sees a cadaverous assailant wielding a rusty filet knife. And she see him put that knife through Louis' eye and into his brain.
So, Miriam as a roommate? Yeah, not ideal. Beside the whole "figure out when and how you kick it" thing, Wendig imbues her with profane erudition. No one escapes her ribald ridiculing. "He's at least half-retarded," she intones at one point when trying to talk her way out of a barroom brawl. "Though I'm willing to put money on two-thirds retarded, if you're up for a friendly wager. Mom used to feed him lawn fertilizer when he was a kid, I think as some kind of retroactive abortion attempt." Such sarcasm extends to the narrative style. The "scout's honor" gesture (a paired index and middle finger) gets recast as "a proctologist's silent threat." Chapters are winsomely titled "The Sun Can Go Fuck Itself," "The Sunshine Café Can Go Fuck Itself Equally," and "Ain't Torture Grand?" Honestly, the crass shtick starts to get tiresome pretty quickly. It's like a teenager who can recite pi to the two-hundredth digit while gargling tapioca, equal parts bizarrely impressive and tremendously annoying. Wendig seems to understand this. At the midpoint, he kicks into gear both the plot and some interesting themes. I won't spoil anything, but suffice it to say that the mythic idea of the psychopomp takes center stage, as does the idea of fate. Does determinism override human responsibility? Can we ever righteously abdicate our moral duties? Should we continue to strive even when assured of failure? Blackbirds' language may turn it blue, but it certainly asks all the right questions.
(Picture: CC 2008 by Wiechert Visser)