John Dermot Woods, The Baltimore Atrocities, Coffee House Press, 2014
Reviewed by Sean Lovelace
I've been watching The Walking Dead, AMC's popular television drama portraying life post-zombie apocalypse (original story based on a comic book series). This is unusual, for me. The last TV series I regularly viewed was Battlestar Galactica, and that was 10 years ago. (I remember clearly an epic blonde alien femme fatale.) Like many others, I admire a great deal of The Walking Dead, the sets, the acting, the varied and always smart pacing, the artistic spattering of cerebellums, the excruciating and ever-present moral decisions involving life/death/the undead, but mostly I enjoy how it isn't about zombies much at all—it's about all of us, right now. We are The Walking Dead... "a walking shadow, a poor player. That struts and frets his hour upon the stage." And so on. The zombie show is about the brevity of time, and what we value in the face of that brevity.
The Baltimore Atrocities is a novel, a quest narrative, by writer (and cartoonist—his sketching on various pages between text) John Dermot Woods. But really it isn't. The quest does provide an impetus, a question, a metaphor, a structural wiring for the separate flash fictions to snarl upon, but it isn't the central narrative. It isn't a quest that requires us locate/not locate its presumed goal (lost siblings). The Baltimore Atrocities brings to mind several books piled high right now upon my desk, Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas (linked flash nonfiction memoir), The Road by Cormac McCarthy (quest/non-quest told in sections of prose poetry), Paris Spleen by Baudelaire (linked flash fiction of Place), and then a rather bizarre connection, Trout Fishing in America, by Richard Brautigan.
What I've always admired about Trout Fishing in America are its comic characters, thoughtful focus, and persistent intellectual interest in structure and craft. The book is of the few I remembering finishing with this immediate reaction: You can write that way? As a writer and reader, it was profoundly liberating. You can write a book that way, or any other way—if you keep the lively seriousness (not an oxymoron at all) of an artist. So it is with The Baltimore Atrocities.
DARKLY COMIC CHARACTERS:
Anyone who recalls Brautigan's scoundrels, bums, and motley fishermen will quickly appreciate the misfits of Woods's fictional Baltimore. Darkly comic characters and situations abound. Baltimore seems to be caught in a loop (but more on that later), a whirring cinematic reel that flaps about in its ragged, rent spin, projecting images of doom and despair: a small man trapped for a decade inside a basement safe; a school crossing guard who directs and watches only over the attractive children; a neighbor's son (surely a cousin of The Kool Aid Wino), quixotic, who whenever he sees "...broad harbors, a turbulent stream, a chilled creek, he became set on crossing it."; an employee at a hamburger restaurant who "...was fired unceremoniously, simply because he had a habit of gulping unusually loud as he drank water..."; and then an even darker collection of wayward souls, thieves, abusers, murderers, suicide after suicide (after suicide).
(We even get a "self-proclaimed experimental poet"—unfortunately she lives.)
These characters work in this novel by accumulation. They each get their own flash fiction, each their own brief stumble, a Walking Dead indeed. (The zombies in that show primarily eat humans by relentless walking in great numbers, basically a form of herding.) This is a purposeful craft move by the writer. In The Baltimore Atrocities, these secondary characters and their brief time on stage act in that same way, always in relief/perspective to the primary character, the "I." This works well in that it begs a central existential question, posited famously by Camus: you have two options, suicide and everything else. So. Choose. Or: why continue with the quest at all, in this Baltimore?
One of the most annoying responses I hear to Trout Fishing in America is to minimize. The writing is "funky" or "whimsical" or "nostalgic." True. But it's also a focused device of rhetoric. It's trying to carry forward something essential.
I'll tell you why: The Baltimore Atrocities is full of mendacity, backstabbing, the foul nastiness man hands on to man, evil basically, yet it does so with a purpose. This Baltimore offers no answer. No solace. Nothing to find, certainly not a kind word, a friendly hand, or a lost sibling...so what is the quest, really? As I've said, there is no quest. The quest, for us, is to create a quest. What's the purpose of life? Trick question: to have a purpose.
INTEREST IN STRUCTURE/CRAFT
But this book isn't a philosophical essay, it is a novel. And I see a novelist with an intellectual bent, a leaning to craft, to structure, the power of specifics, verisimilitude, sentence attention, voice, on and on. Often, people will ask if an author enjoys writing. Who knows? But I believe this author did enjoy crafting this book, in that a certain human joy comes from facing the immensely difficult (just ask a golfer). Let me talk for a moment about craft:
The structure here is intricate. Purposeful. Twenty-five chapters, each with the starts and stops of the "I" or the "I" and his companion. We then follow with several flash fictions, the secondary characters and their doings (mostly their undoing). But then the structure actually becomes more interesting, the threads (suicide is one) unspool, spool, wrap themselves about one another. The image is of bundled wire, as I intimated earlier, and that works, since wires often carry energy. Concepts connect, baseball, water motifs, parks and other wooded areas, sent out, echoing back, transmissions.
The voice is likewise interesting. Nothing about it mushy. It declares things, period, and I for one prefer a narrator who believes what they say (even if we, as readers, do not believe). Here's the sure opening to the book:
Note the assertions, MUST face maturity, HAVE NO CHOICE, WILL BE, and so on. Not might, WILL BE.
Another aspect of the voice is realized in the flash fictions. Basically, the voice of a crime reporter. Just the awful facts:
And so on.
Atrocity is an interesting term, with several meanings, including wickedness, cruelty, violence. But an exceptionally tacky hat can also be "atrocious," in a comic way. For the protagonist, The Baltimore Atrocities presents both worlds, the dark and the darkly comic, and there is no relief, the situation is evident:
These words form a powerful realization for the protagonist, but they appear in the mezzo of the novel, not the end. Another technique John Dermot Woods understands is the nebulous but significant concept of sympathetic character.
What is that, for a protagonist, for the reader to engage?
This: He goes on.