I'm trying to wrap my brain around On the Banks of Lethe. It's not easy. But James Grant does that to my brain.
I think I probably got into Grant's stuff thanks to Randy Milholland. When Grant's original webcomics magnum opus, the Jay Storyline, was in full flower over at FLEM Comics!, Randy did small cameos in Something Positive. Jay was one of the people Davan knew back in Texas. Simple enough. That led me to FLEM, which later on led me to Two Lumps. I loved it.
I loved it because Grant is a sick fuck. Which is really the only way to describe him. Except he's a funny sick fuck. He's a talented sick fuck. He reminds me, in his own way, of George Carlin. When I watched the DVD of The Aristocrats, I was pretty blase through the telling and retelling of the most obscene joke in the universe. I'm a jaded person by nature, when it comes to such things. But while Sarah Silverman's deadpan version was the best and most memorable, George Carlin's is the one that got me within three gags of actually throwing up. And yet, it was still funny.
That's the kind of power Grant has. And it's a power he carries through into his writing.
I read and greatly enjoyed Pedestrian Wolves, Grant's first book. It was vivid and evocative -- a shout down down the throat of New Orleans, written before Katrina and in its own way a testament to a city that doesn't exist in the same way any more. However, I wasn't sure that Pedestrian Wolves was so much a novel as a travelogue -- a taste of the city, of the mores of the place, of the scene, of one man's understanding of the streets he had walked. Grant's second book, the aforementioned On the Banks of Lethe is a solid, full on, hardcore novel. It's the story of Charlie, and it's the story of memory and loss. Which can't possibly be coincidence -- it is absolutely nothing like the short story "Flowers for Algernon," or the novel that it grew into, and yet when you read about Charlie in Lethe, you think of Charley in that original story. You think about pain. You think about loss.
If I were to describe the book, I'd be somewhat at a loss. It's got a little Noir to it -- a little sense of the One Good Man fighting a battle. But at the same time, it's Noir as written by Sean Stewart and soundtracked by the Sisters of Mercy. The One Good Man is always a flawed figure, but this time his flaws are held together with barbed wire and set on fire. It's Portrait of the Artist as Cursed By Non-Euclidean Monstrosities.
And it's fascinating. Fascinating as the stare of a cobra.
There's no comfort in this book. I never got the feeling that Charlie would win. I saw him struggling, and trying -- saw him trying to hold on to the woman he loved and the world, but this is James L. Grant, so I figured there would be a few shotgun blasts to the ego along the way. And the book doesn't disappoint. It reminded me of some other stories -- Vellum, by Hal Duncan. Perfect Circle by the aformentioned Sean Stewart. Even "The Unpleasant Occupation of Jonathan Hoag" by Robert Heinlein (though more if the other side won in that particular work). The imagery is powerful and disturbing, the voice is solid.
In a way, as stated, this really is Grant's first novel, since I don't think we can really call Pedestrian Wolves a novel. And there's some sense of that in the book. He overwrites a bit, here and there. Sometimes phrases like "Daughter of Red" beg to be shrunk down instead of repeated over and over again. But these are comparatively minor -- like brushstrokes on one of Charlie's paintings. The paint may seem thick in places, but it adds texture to the whole.
This is not a comforting book. But man, it was a good ride getting to the end. I'm looking forward to the next time Grant takes a few shots at our collective psyches.