Redeeming American Psychos
In 1799, Charles Brockden Brown packed three grisly killings into Ormond, and ever since, the American novel has churned with ambivalence toward murder. On one hand, it is a crime of unimaginable cruelty. On the other, it is endlessly fascinating. The double attraction has proved impossible to resist— in movies and on TV, murder is even more popular than extramarital love. The problem, at least for American novelists, is that “it has been going on too long for it to be news,” as Raymond Chandler pointed out. For murder to be novel, it must be something more than murder.
Enter the novel of the sensational murder. From Richard Wright’s Native Son through Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, American fiction has told the story of the moral monster whose crimes electrify an entire community. Almost without exception, the novels about them have explored the killers’ minds and motives, bringing readers into their inner lives, establishing an intimacy with them. It fell to Truman Capote to put the finishing touches on the literary demoralization of murder. In Cold Blood is often praised as the first “nonfiction novel,” but Capote’s true legacy was to make the use of the word evil almost as trashy as the interior decorating choices in his murder victims’ home.
After so many years of so many murders, American novelists have begun to look for some way to restore meaning to them again. They’ve even started to ask whether the real drama isn’t in redemption rather than the crime. Donald Ray Pollock searches for an answer in The Devil All the Time (Doubleday, 272 pages). To say Pollock’s debut outing is about murder and other kinds of violent death is like saying Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is about unhappy women. The novel contains a gruesome Japanese war atrocity, two suicides, one excruciating death from cancer, and 13 murders, all narrated in the flat tones of unsurprised amorality. It has been called a “Southern gothic,” but unlike what is at work in Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy, there is nothing redemptive here—although Pollock appears to wish there were.
The novel opens in southern Ohio in 1957. Willard Russell, a slaughterhouse worker, viciously beats a man who had spoken lewdly of his wife, Charlotte. “You just got to pick the right time,” Willard instructs his son, Arvin. “They’s a lot of no-good sonsofabitches out there.” When Charlotte falls ill with a cancer that leaves her unable to keep down food or leave her bed, Willard begins to sacrifice animals at his “prayer log” behind the house, entreating “heaven” to save her. When that fails, he murders his landlord—a rich lawyer who had solicited Willard to murder his own unfaithful wife—and offers him as a sacrifice. Charlotte dies anyway, and Willard kills himself. Ten-year-old Arvin is packed off to live with his grandmother in West Virginia.
The bodies pile up. An Appalachian evangelist murders his wife to prove that he can raise the dead (he can’t). Back in Arvin’s old hometown, Carl and Sandy Henderson pick up hitchhikers and murder them, one right after another—six in all—posing for pictures with the corpses. The killing seems random; the plot lines seem unconnected, except by geography and theme; but in the end they are tied up as if by fate. After shooting the chubby new preacher who impregnated his cousin Lenora (she hangs herself when he rejects her), Arvin flees to Ohio. The serial-killing Hendersons pick him up on U.S. 35, having just murdered the wife-murdering evangelist, and try to do the same to him. Arvin kills them first and then a corrupt sheriff to boot.
Pollock intends his novel’s ending to be morally satisfying. In a world where evil is “all the time,” an upright man might discharge his responsibility to protect those he loves by killing if he must. To keep Arvin from being mistaken for a monster, Pollock makes him taciturn, good-looking, a hard worker on a construction crew. “I don’t like bullies,” he tells his uncle after beating three high school seniors who make fun of Lenora.
But is it sufficient to redeem the violence? Arvin learns that Carl and Sandy Henderson were murderers only after he gunned them down (admittedly, in self-defense). He shoots Sheriff Lee Bodicker to free himself from the deluge of violence, but because he cannot possibly know that the sheriff is himself a murderer, Arvin’s redemption is not a fruit of moral knowledge but narrative contrivance. Pollock’s own story is inspiring—he’s a high-school dropout who worked in an Ohio paper mill for four decades before going back to earn a creative-writing degree and becoming the celebrated author of the story collection Knockemstiff—but he lacks a moral perspective, at least in his fiction, to suit his remarkable personal circumstances.
Ron Hansen has divided his career between brilliant representations of the Roman Catholic religious experience (Mariette in Ecstasy and Exiles) and painstaking reconstructions of historical villainy (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Hitler’s Niece). In all his fiction, he has insisted (in his own words) “on a Christian perspective on sin and redemption and forgiveness.” His ninth novel, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion (Scribner, 272 pages), does not belabor the perspective, but it flavors everything in the book, like garlic in a sauce.
The novel is about a scandalous 1927 murder case. Ruth Snyder, a beautiful Queens housewife, murdered her older husband Albert with the help of her lover, a lingerie salesman named Judd Gray. For nearly a year between the couple’s arrest and their execution at Sing Sing within minutes of each other, New York’s 11 daily newspapers covered the story, Hansen notes, as if it were “the crime of the century.” The famous photograph of Ruth Snyder in the electric chair, straining against the straps as the first jolt hits her, was published on the front page of the Daily News under the gloating headline “Dead!”
The classic film noir Double Indemnity is also based on the case. Hansen verbally echoes Raymond Chandler’s script (“Duplicates. Triplicates,” Albert mutters when signing life-insurance forms), as if he hopes to frustrate comparisons by openly admitting them. What, then, distinguishes Hansen’s novel? A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion hews more closely to the historical details. Hansen knows the brand names of a lady’s toilette (Le Lilas perfume, Amolin deodorant powder, Sen-Sen licorice breath fresheners); he knows the restaurants and nightclubs where romantic trysts were likely to be held (Henry’s, Zari’s, the Frivolity Club); he knows the music and dances and popular reading of the Jazz Age.
Yet even though his novel is not far removed from the “true crime” genre, Hansen is not especially interested in what social historians are forever demanding—he does little or nothing to “contextualize” the murder of Albert Snyder. He does not get worked up by the different ways in which crime is said to reflect changes in culture and society. What he describes is the process by which an ordinary man like Judd Gray—a man of some conscience—is brought, step-by-step, to murder. His title, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, taken from a remark by a newspaper columnist who covered the trial, is particularly fitting. The word passion originated in Latin as a Christian theological term, referring to the sufferings of Jesus. It is related to the word passive, which originally meant “subject to passion or emotion.” Judd Gray finds himself subjected to an overwhelming erotic passion for Ruth Snyder, as if he were the helpless victim of a coercive power, which compels his steps to the bedroom where Albert Snyder is bludgeoned to death.
Over its final quarter, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion becomes a study in how a man might recover his moral bearings. In prison, Judd finds a “deep tranquility” in admitting guilt. He sings Protestant hymns with “full-throated reverence” in chapel, quotes the Bible often and publicly, carries A Child’s Book of Prayer into court. His spiritual rebirth, and the style in which it is narrated, are matter-of-fact. Redemption in Hansen’s world has nothing to do with moral goodness or even self-improvement. It is really the freedom to turn one’s life around at any time.
Ronald Merullo is one of the few contemporary American novelists willing to call evil by its name. Serial murder provides the background of The Talk-Funny Girl (Crown, 320 pages), his tenth novel, but a murderer is not his hero. She is, instead, someone who stands so close to evil that she is nearly engulfed by it. Marjorie Richards is a girl who “was not treated well,” as she says with the plainspoken understatement that is her signature as a narrator. The year she turns 17, four teenaged girls are abducted and murdered by a sexual predator. The whole of middle-north New Hampshire lives under a “blanket of fear.”
May-gee (as her parents call her) lives in a four-room cabin on 12 acres in the woods, far from any neighbors, the only child of a mother whose “regret had a murderous quality” and a father who, on partial disability from a back injury and nearly friendless, spends most of his time alone in the woods. The family lives, she says, “as if enemies surrounded them on all sides.” Their odd speech (“Why could it matter for at you?” “School could be finished not long”) serves to emphasize and deepen their estrangement from human community. It also earns Marjorie the nickname of the “talk-funny girl,” which is not the worst thing—it is a “soft, ugly cushion” that she holds close to protect her from more painful hurts.
Far worse are the punishments that her parents dole out. Marjorie is “doused” (in ice-cold water), “hungered” (deprived of food for a day), “boyed” (forced to dress and act like a boy), and in the most upsetting episode, “faced” in church for the “sin” of “disobey.” A brown grocery bag is pulled over her head, and one adult after another in the congregation—15 in all—jam two straight fingers into her lips, her eye, her nose, her throat. This church, a sort of primitive charismatic sect described by Marjorie’s mother as the “Lord of God’s House,” is the domain of Pastor Schect, whose “corner of the spiritual territory” is the taming of children. Marjorie’s aunt calls it something else. “For this kind of thing,” she warns Marjorie’s parents, “people go to jail.”
In no way does The Talk-Funny Girl mean to draw a straight line from religious fervor to sadism. Nor is it yet another survivor-of-abuse story. Sent by her parents to find a job to supplement the family’s meager income, Marjorie is taken on as an apprentice to a stonemason, a friend of her aunt, who is restoring an Episcopal church that was destroyed in a fire. He wants to build a cathedral on its site, or what he calls a cathedral anyway. It is “important to make something that looks good,” he explains, “out of something that doesn’t.” By the end of the book, Marjorie is going to Quaker meetings.
Marjorie’s redemption comes about through learning to work with stone. The practical knowl-edge and even the artistry involved, the raising of a true “Lord of God’s House” in place of destruction, are just as real as serial murder. Productive labor is unusual enough in the American novel—Merullo does not merely say his characters work with tools, he shows them solving problems with their materials—but creating a good life, as opposed to dwelling ghoulishly on a bad one, is a rare achievement.