A Tall Tale Too True

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Set in the 1840s Midwest, Kris Saknussemm’s second novel, Enigmatic Pilot, delivers unexpected characters in a surreal interpretation of American history.

For readers unfamiliar with Kris Saknussemm’s genre-bending first novel Zanesville, the best way to consume Enigmatic Pilot, Zanesville’s picaresque and swashbuckling prequel, is to read it as an homage to the 19th century American adventure novel. With the occasional appearance of Martians. And mechanical animals. And secret societies that not only war in the past, but will war in the future. Expect shades of Mark Twain’s tall tales, Zane Grey, and Pynchonian conspiracies. Expect characters search for truth only to find Saknussemm’s signature vision: a kaleidoscopic and incongruous Dali painting that evokes America’s unvarnished history.

Set mostly in the 1840s in the American Midwest, the novel tells the story of the Sitturd family. Hephaestus is a clubfooted, failed inventor, and his wife Rapture is a Creole woman who spends much of the book speaking in a nearly incomprehensible and cartoonish form of Creole English. Their son Lloyd is a preternaturally gifted six year-old, who will, in Zanesville, play a role in determining the fate of a near-future America. Enigmatic Pilot is the grown-up Lloyd Sitturd’s origin story. After a cryptic invitation from Lloyd’s uncle, Lloyd and his parents leave their home in Zanesville, Ohio and head out on a dangerous journey across the American frontier to Texas. During this journey, Lloyd comes of age and discovers his prodigious gifts. These gifts include a way with grown women, a talent for invention that far surpasses his father (he learns to fly well before the Wright Brothers), and a knack for running into one outsized character after another. Riverboat gamblers. Runaway slaves. Medicine men hucksters. Crooked magicians. Sniveling, uneducated bullies.

Saknussemm’s eye for character development shines with Lloyd and some of the book’s ancillary characters, like Hattie, the runaway mulatto slave that Lloyd falls in love with (all too briefly) and Lodema, Lloyd’s dead sister. Enigmatic Pilot is one of Saknussemm’s most accessible and moving works. In this passage, Lloyd mourns his lost sister and his lost childhood and finds himself on the brink of oblivion.

The more he dwelled on this notion, the more it formed in his mind. Another bitter bite of shock for his father and mother, yes, but then release, maybe forever. Besides, since the old man was back among the living, Lloyd had no place at the head of the family. His childhood had been lost in the scent of Miss Viola’s thighs and in the glare of the sun when he fell to earth, and he had killed at least one other human being and perhaps two innocent monsters, and caused who knows what hardships and dismay for the professor and Brookmire, not to mention Schelling and his clandestine tribe. The solution to all the conundrums facing him seemed amazingly simple when he examined it in the faint light of the empty deck. He found himself climbing up onto the rail, staring down at the dark flow that surged around the shape of the Defiance just as the blood coursed through the vessels in his throbbing, cap-hidden head. All it would take was a little weight, and he would disappear without a trace.

The world of Enigmatic Pilot is conjured with tremendous imagination and a detailed eye for this time period in American history. You can practically taste the grit of the frontier on every page. Saknussemm also paints a far more diverse picture than you’re likely to read in books from that time. In this passage, Saknussemm’s 1840s American West is a carnival of global misfits:

Smitten with sorrow about Hattie, Lloyd dragged his feet forward, his eyes blinking at the populace that swirled around them, every bit as turbid as the river had been. Wary-looking Spaniards, their faces shadowed by broad hats, cooked over both open fires and buried ovens. Smells of corn bread, charred rabbit, pulled pork, and bubbling beans surrounded them as if they had concocted a fortress of aromas to defend against the pipe smoke, forage fires, and manure. Travel-weary Baptist women as stiff as split-oak rails peered out from under sweat-stained blueberry bonnets, stirring great boiling kettles of laundry with fence pickets. Negroes lounged under sagging awnings, eyes peeled raw for trouble, and more Indians than Lloyd had ever imagined lurked and bartered or tethered shaggy ponies to flagpoles and barber poles and poles that held up signs saying not to tie up horses there.

If there’s anything dissatisfying about Enigmatic Pilot, it’s that the plot ends up asking many more questions than it answers. What are the two warring clandestine Knight’s Templar-esque factions truly after? How does Lloyd’s destiny connect to these groups? How does all the strangeness that the boy has seen connect with the futuristic, post-apocalyptic world of Zanesville? It seems clear that the only fate that’s been sealed in Enigmatic Pilot is the certainty of a third book in Saknussemm’s surreal, alternate America.

Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian (2019). Cheuk’s work has appeared in publications such as NPR, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon, among other outlets. You can follow Cheuk on Twitter at @lcheuk. More from this author →