Wouldn’t you know? Rhode Island, the smallest state in New England, has turned out to be the setting for the broadest, boldest New England novel in a long while. Broadest and boldest, because, though Stephen Dobyns’s new work of fiction may move primarily as a thriller it punches and thrusts and bangs its shoulders hard against the confines of the genre in ways as entertaining as any new work of fiction you’ll read this winter.
Located on Dobyns’s fictive map of the actual state, Brewster, R.I., the setting for the novel, is a stereotypic New England village just southwest of Providence on the edge of the Great Swamp state preserve. The book’s stylistic action — it comes to us in an all-knowing, constantly driving, third-person narration — takes place somewhere to the west of Dickens and in the vicinity of horror masters such as Poe and Stephen King.
You get a big taste of this almost immediately as the novel opens. It’s the middle of the night in the local hospital as a nurse sneaks away from her post in the pediatrics unit for a quickie with a seductive doc — and returns to find that an infant has disappeared and a large snake writhes in its crib. And this, dear readers, will turn out to be just the beginning of a series of unfortunate events in the days leading up to Halloween.
THE BURN PALACE
Enter the local police, the State Police, and the frenzied, but purposeful, actions of as large a cast of characters as you could ever have imagined a small town in a small state might produce. There’s a young boy whose stepfather has been behaving strangely and his pet snake, a State Police operative with a crush on a local reporter, a soon to be scalped — yes, that’s scalped! — insurance investigator from Boston, the owner of a mortuary incinerator (the so-called “Burn Palace” of the title), and a pack of hyperactive coyotes.
And then we also have a sinister physician, a hospital employee who may have ties to a Satanist group, more missing babies, women raped and murdered, the spooky environs of the state swamp, and the dark Atlantic beach. And all of it pursued by detective Woody Potter whose mission is to keep tracking MacGuffins till one of them leads him to the heart of it all. Thus the thoughts about Dickens and Stephen King.
However, the best part of the book isn’t the range of characters or the style — which, to borrow a metaphor that Dobyns himself uses to describe the mind of a young boy who has just received his first deer rifle, is as “marbled with fantasy as a steak is marbled with fat ” — it’s the unfolding of a complex plot that moves all of the characters about in such fashion as to produce that frisson of American despair and horror. Or at least American gothic.
The snakes appear to be real. So do the Satanists. As do the killer coyotes. And when one of the characters snaps and goes mad and goes down on all fours to stalk innocent people like a wolf man, that too stops short of passing over the line into the supernatural, though it comes awfully close. Turns out the character is just an extremely psychotic fellow — and, wow, does he drive the last part of the book toward fear and loathing.
Only one character, a young boy, whose fight for life makes up one of the main strands of the plot of this deliciously and relentlessly forward-moving novel, seems to possess certain powers possibly beyond the ordinary.
As may — or at least you think so while you’re reading his powerful new novel — Stephen Dobyns.
Alan Cheuse is the book commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” His latest work of fiction is a trio of novellas titled “Paradise.’’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.