The Secret History
J. Robert Lennon’s latest novel explores the darkness of the land and the soul.
At two points in J. Robert Lennon’s captivating new novel, Castle, a desperate character makes his way around a stone structure in search of some point of entry. After hours of searching, each finds a spot in the wall where, in place of a stone, a wooden block is set with a thick iron ring; with trepidation each character pulls it out, the heavy block drops to the floor, and there it is: a dark tunnel just the size of a grown man. A pause. Each man stares into the hole. We wait to see if he will crawl into something that is surely the horror of his life…
This desperate search around a maddening structure, and this deliberation at the point of decision, echo Lennon’s own remarkable body of work, which over the course of a decade and a half has amounted to seven works of fiction and numerous pieces of criticism. It is often hard for booksellers to describe what, exactly, a J. Robert Lennon novel is like; I find, when I talk to them, that they are usually in love with one novel in particular, and will argue urgently with anyone who prefers a different one, as if choosing among his children. Some fell in love with The Light of Falling Stars, the story of a plane crash, a bestseller in 1996 and winner of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers award. For others, The Funnies is the “true” Lennon novel, because it sets up a comic situation (son of a famous cartoonist inherits his Family Circus-like strip) and then delivers an unexpected investigation into the acid heart of the American family. This was followed by the quietly beautiful On the Night Plain, in which the struggles of mid-century America are portrayed through the almost biblical story of brothers on a sheep ranch.
Then there are diehard fans of Lennon’s short-short story collection, Pieces for the Left Hand (out soon in the U.S.; the accompanying CD has a song for each story, written and performed by Lennon himself), and admirers of his novel Happyland, about a dollmaker who buys up a small town (intriguingly available only in a shortened, serialized format in Harper’s). There are, as well, a number of well-known critics for whom his brilliant novel, Mailman, is the defining Lennon work. Absolutely different in scope and scale (at eight hundred pages), Mailman is the story of an isolated, socially awkward, unemployed postal worker whose sense of his own mortality (and madness) sends him across the world and deep within himself.
Each book seems so different, as if Lennon were serpentining a path through his career, escaping the sniper fire of categorization, which would equal creative death. Instead, he has claimed for himself the right to produce anything he damn well pleases.
His latest novel, Castle, would seem to fit neatly into this pattern: the disturbing story of Eric Loesch, who returns to his hometown, buys property, and begins to feel the chill of another (inhuman?) presence on the land. Despite this gothic premise, however, Castle is a Lennon novel through and through, in which the author paces his way around the structure that so fascinates him—the rage and isolation of the American male—searching and searching for that way in, that tunnel into the heart of things.
What begins as a story of loneliness and forgetting—with Loesch rebuilding his cabin and shrugging off the assistance of townspeople (as well as his own sister)—creeps into a haunting, once he climbs a peak on his property and discovers evidence of its disturbing history. Lennon leads readers not only into Loesch’s past but, most shockingly, into an indictment of our country. The history is his—and ours.
“If you wished to inflict pain without doing permanent harm,” Loesch is asked at one chilling point in Castle, “how might you go about it?” It takes only one long pause before Loesch finds he has an answer. It is the history of that pause: how one learns to suffer pain, how one learns to cause pain in others; how one acts without questioning; how one is blind to all but the danger at hand. How, in other words, American boys become American men.
“How did we get here?” Lennon asks in novel after novel, and, like all great writers, he has no answers, just example after example. “The details of my decision to begin this adventure,” Loesch tells us near the end of Castle, “seemed hazier in memory by the minute.” How do we survive the grief of an airplane crash, the madness of a drawn world, the loneliness of exile, the ache of greed and control, the impossibility of human connection, the fragility of life, the sorrow in the unfixable past, the pain we never stop enacting? Here, with Castle, Lennon continues his search around the structure for that way in. And—luckily for us, for he is a young, imaginative, astoundingly prolific writer—he is still only partway around.