Joe Meno’s ninth novel, Marvel and a Wonder, is his most mystically charged yet. Set in 1995 in rural Indiana on a small farm that practically screams dying relic, the book centers on Jim Falls, a Korean War vet in his seventies who is baffled by the sensitivities of his grandson Quentin, a sixteen-year-old bored to pieces when he’s not sniffing glue or trying to communicate with animals. Quentin, whose ethnicity is half-white and half-black, is the child of Falls’s daughter, a drug addict who abandons her son, but not before raging at her father’s taciturn, stern nature.
Into this quietly tense dynamic, a quarter-horse is delivered, origins unknown. Jim sees the white mare bred for racing prowess and thinks the horse is “the answer to something…. in its stoicism, in its stony quiet, the grandfather saw what he most often loved about the land, the country, the world.” Quentin is similarly beholden but for different reasons; in the small town where he’s mostly ignored or treated as an interloper, he finally has a friend. But then the horse is stolen by two meth-dealing brothers who barely understand how to feed it, much less make a profit off of it. The book gives way to an epic chase across state lines as Quentin and Jim try to get it back first from the brothers, and then from Rick West, a more competent villain whose efforts are complicated by his unwilling hostage, Riley.
The novel has received admiring reviews from Kirkus and the New York Times‘s Sunday Book Review, which praised Meno’s ability to make banal exchanges between Quentin and Jim “compelling and necessary,” but it’s the piled-up sentences that give the novel its atmospheric weight. Take this moment when Jim observes the horse running:
It was sort of like watching your own death, but beautiful, too. Something so mysterious and fulsome, something beyond any world he had imagined, that he dared not stare for long, fearing the questions he still had about life would make their answers apparent too soon.
Meno, on a break from teaching classes at Columbia College in his native Chicago, spoke with the Rumpus about his influences.
The Rumpus: There’s a beautiful mare that plays a big role in this story. Tell me about your relationship to horses, because we both grew up in Chicago where the only time you see horses is when they’re pulling tourists around downtown, or maybe in a parade.
Joe Meno: I would spend the summer in Indiana, and there were horses in this small town. We’d go to this place where you could ride a horse, like a state park or something. Just being a boy, especially having not grown up around animals and being in the city, that’s a pretty amazing, transformative experience, where you get to tap into these films or books or stories that you heard.
Rumpus: Yes, horses are so close to legend or myth.
Meno: For this book I was trying to find this sense of America that I felt was an image. I felt deeply connected to America and the mythological. I started the book as a short story and it was about the grandfather and grandson and their relationship. But for it to be a book and not just a short story, there had to be this larger element, this thing that could hopefully have more than one meaning. I think I just experimented; I had all these different drafts. When I arrived at the horse, I probably consciously or subconsciously thought about Faulkner; he uses the horse in The Unvanquished and The Reivers. Once I started writing about these characters and writing about Indiana, it felt natural to use that image. It felt like it pointed in a certain direction and I realized, ‘Oh, there are these references that I can follow, like the Bible and mythology and crime stories and the Western,’ and they made it feel like it just wasn’t about this grandfather and grandson. There was this larger sense of scale, you know, or that it was touching on something more allegorical.
Rumpus: This book deeply considers masculinity but often in surprising ways, considering the built-in ideas we have about salt-of-the-earth Midwestern types toiling away on a farm.
Meno: So much of this book is panned directly from my experience with my own father and [my wife] Corin’s father, really her stepdad. Her stepdad grew up on this chicken farm in small-town Indiana; he served in Vietnam. I had this really intense and ultimately really rewarding relationship with him; he passed away four years ago. Whenever something broke in the house, I would call him up. I didn’t even know what a sump pump was until it broke and he came over to change it. There’s this other generation of men who served in the military and learned how to fix things from their fathers, and grew up uncomfortable talking about emotion and talking about themselves. They’re very stoic. At the same time, they were men who were deeply flawed on issues of race or gender or equality, but there was something much more complicated about these men than you can tell at first glance. He’d be working on changing the garbage disposal and then he’d tell me some story about Vietnam and not speak for another two hours. There’s this way of being a man that’s kind of slowly fading and so part of that was me trying to write to understand what that shift is, because there’s a lot of things that that generation failed to resolve, a lot of problems they created that are still a part of what’s going on today, but then there’s also these really interesting choices they made, of sacrifice, of doing something for somebody else.
Rumpus: Do you feel like you wrote this book in part to explore that kind of guy, the good and the bad, as he’s fading away? Almost to decide how you feel about that kind of guy?
Meno: You have these characters in literature that you would rather turn away from, like Thomas Sutpen from Absalom! Absalom! or any of the members in As I Lay Dying, or Joe Christmas in Light in August, but they’re incredibly complex. Toni Morrison does this all the time; she has these characters you disagree with on so many levels, like Sethe in Beloved or the father from The Bluest Eye, who molested his daughter. For me, there’s this conversation that doesn’t happen in film or television—or it happens in a really bad way—and so to have these conversations you have to go to the novel. If you saw Jim in a film or TV show, you’d turn the channel off. But for you to understand the character you disagree with or don’t understand at first, you have to have this protracted, sustained experience with him. I don’t know how Morrison gets us to sympathize with this person who abused this child, but to me that is what fiction is for. So, for me, I know this guy, I can identify him in my life, in my family, and in the world I know.
Rumpus: Jim Falls is this old-school masculine type, but he’s also the main parent in the book. He’s the main caretaker.
Meno: I don’t think that’s uncommon. I think the number of grandparents raising their grandchildren is something like a million, some grand number. For Jim, the scariest thing in the world is to have to face that responsibility for his grandson, and then ultimately he decides he’s going to try. That’s the major conflict of the book. It’s this love story between these two men.
Rumpus: A love story between the grandson and the grandfather?
Meno: Yeah, that’s what the book is. This man trying to come to understand his grandson, that for him represents the end of the world, and then finding things of value and being hopeful, and not thinking that the end of his generation means the end of the world.
Rumpus: When you say he sees Quentin as the end of the world, why does he see that in him?
Meno: I think part of it is [Quentin’s] racial makeup, that he looks at this kid and he doesn’t recognize himself, even the way the kid looks. For him, that’s such a huge obstacle and challenge in their relationship. Jim’s been discharged for this racially-related incident in the army and then his daughter show up with this bi-racial kid. [Quentin’s] not traditionally male in a lot of ways. He prefers to be around animals, he says these weird, off-putting things; every time he has a feeling or thought, he shares it, which again is kind of the opposite of the way this guy operates. Quentin asks the grandfather for money instead of going out and getting a job himself. This kid wants to bury this dead chick, and Jim’s like, ‘You don’t bury a dead chick, you throw it in the trash.’ He thinks this generation is unprepared and unwilling to do these hard things.
Rumpus: I want to go back to the horse for a minute. Why did you name the horse John the Baptist? It’s a small detail that only comes up once but it leaves an impression.
Meno: John the Baptist was this character from the Bible. I wanted the horse to have this biblical name, and I also wanted it to be a name that connoted this idea of sacrifice. It was after I finished the draft, and I was thinking, ‘What is this book about?’ It became for me this tension between greed and sacrifice. That tension seems to be at the center of what’s going on in the culture, what’s going on in the country as a whole right now. There are these two opposing forces that, for me, have always defined the country. There’s this idea of service and helping out your neighbor and being humble and giving half of what you have to someone in need. It’s this through-line of America, and then at the same time, there’s this rampant, perverse, unending sense of greed.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about Quentin’s relationship with the horse. At least in the beginning of the book, Quentin wants to be invisible. He really doesn’t want to stand out when he’s walking around the town, and then this horse arrives, this show-stopping creature who can never be invisible, and Quentin seems to love exactly that about her. What’s their relationship all about in your mind?
Meno: Him being sixteen, his relationship with his mom and his mom is not really available emotionally or present, and then him being a person of color in this small town and the only person of color in that small town—he feels all of that either directly or indirectly all the time. So, yeah, he prefers the company of animals, or he prefers to be alone because it’s kind of constantly being highlighted. The fact that he doesn’t know who his father is, it’s this unresolved question, and it’s this huge part of who he is and what he’s trying to think through and so then wanting to disappear, wanting to walk down the street and not have someone make a comment to you, that’s where he begins as a character. When this horse appears, he feels that sense of possibility or communion, or the idea that he’s not alone, a feeling like he has some sort of companion.
Rumpus: As a white author writing a character who’s part black, why did that feel important to do? Why were you attracted to that?
Meno: I think for any story to work, there has to be this really clear sense of opposition. I think I have a very narrow idea of what makes a good story: It involves two characters—whether it’s a story or a novel or a play—and you see what changes in their relationship over the course of the story. I was trying to find what in them was different, what in them was a source of potential conflict, and trying to build on those potential conflicts. And honestly this came directly out of personal experience, family members who had these questions about race and then being forced to confront in children or grandchildren these issues, and how, almost like a miracle, it forced them to think otherwise. So I saw this happen in my extended family and I saw this happen in a couple of different situations. You have these strong men who have these ideas about gender and race who were then confronted with their grandchildren who were of mixed race, and they kind of acquiesce or decide to extend something of love towards that kid. I think that shift we’re talking about between the strong, white male and The Other, whether it’s gender, race, sexual identity or whatever, to me that was more clearly represented in a kid who was bi-racial. Quentin for me feels much more representative of the America that I know. It feels like it’s not even a question anymore, but for Jim it still is, and that shows the kind of divide right there.
Rumpus: Throughout the book, you see Jim figuring it out, what it means to be close to this kid who’s not exactly like him.
Meno: I wanted to write a character based on people that I know, who are redeemable, empathetic, and also happen to be racist. Maybe not entirely racist, but they have these totally misinformed views about race, or certainly a lack of understanding about it, because that character is way more familiar to me than the characters I see in novels that deal with race in this very prep school kind of way, where everyone is supposed to be nice to everybody. I believe in that idea, but it’s not enacted on a daily basis and it’s not real in the kind of racial politics of America. I was definitely concerned and still am that people would read this character and be put off, or make judgments about this character or me as the author. But this story is a story I was really insistent on telling because it comes directly out of my own life.
Rumpus: The way ethnicity factors into this book is subtle but it’s always there. Just the fact that you have this really minor character, a Mexican man, waiting to be hired out of Home Depot’s parking lot. That’s the kind of image that would make Trump foam at the mouth. It feels like a political statement, as an author, to put a character like that in your book, because you’re saying in essence these characters are worthy of our attention, too.
Meno: There’s nobody in this book that’s invented. I mean, they’re fictional characters, but they’re not. They are characters that are moving around the world right now. The book is set in 1995 and that’s when, for me, this massive shift began to occur, especially in the Midwest. That’s when trade deals like NAFTA really changed the working landscape of the Midwest, and that’s when crystal meth distribution really opened up in the Midwest. It was also the year of the O.J. Simpson trial, and there was this really oblique discussion about race, mostly around Mark Fuhrman’s testimony, and so all these things, unfortunately, feel like they’re still being debated or talked about. Hopefully the book has this relationship to the country or the politics, but I’m not trying to make any particular statement or vilify anybody. For me, it is about the characters.
Rumpus: Also, in 1995 the world was on the cusp of being taken over by the Internet but it hadn’t happened yet.
Meno: I think the story of the book kind of doesn’t exist if the Internet is present in the way that it is now, or even the way that it was in 2000. Quentin might have had a very different life, or the way he thought about himself would be different. Those kids who felt out of place in a small town, that’s what the Internet was built for. Being forced to be around his grandfather, to be around this horse, it is from an earlier moment in America. I feel like there are still plenty of kids like Quentin, but that sense of isolation or loneliness is probably just less acute.
Rumpus: I want to go back to something you said earlier about being worried about how Quentin would be received. I think that’s a common fear that white authors have, that if they write a person of color, they’ll somehow mess it up.
Meno: To be honest, I was less concerned with Quentin and way more about Jim. In the early chapters, I set up these things that are offensive or really create these uncomfortable moments. I feel like readers in 2015 are much more open to reading about a character written by someone of a different gender or a different race or a different sexual identity than the author. There’s this conditioning that’s happened in the last twenty years where audiences are incredibly uncomfortable with reading or confronting a character who has a regressive view on race, even if you know the character is hopefully going to change. I think with books and television, it’s really rare to see a character think or say the wrong thing when it has to do with race unless they’re this totally outlandish villain. I’ve written a lot of books that deal with characters who are not me or characters that are somehow outside my own personal experience in terms of gender, in terms of age or race. I think that’s what writers are supposed to do. But I think it’s more challenging to try to sell this character and have people empathize when he has a view that we all know is kind of wrong.
Rumpus: Right, the knee-jerk reaction is just to discard that guy.
Meno: Yeah, like ‘I just don’t want to touch this thing.’ I also had these concerns about these questions of male identity. My main big concern was like, ‘Well, how is a female reader going to experience the book?’ Because they’re going to feel so removed from any kind of common experience or a male-based one, and then on top of that, the grandfather has these ideas about race. For the last year, I’ve been walking around terrified that the audience wouldn’t give that character a chance, and that the tone of the book would be inaccessible. It’s been really gratifying that a lot of reviews so far—especially from women—have been really thoughtful and really responsive to the book.
Rumpus: Your book is really concerned with masculinity, but of course part of what it means to be a man is how do you relate to women and also how the women in this world survive. Maybe my favorite character in this book is Riley. She just has so much fire in her.
Meno: I’m really proud of that character. It’s like you’re trying to write these characters that you know or see in your world that you just don’t see in fiction right now, and she’s definitely one of those characters. For me, she is lost, very damaged—a lot of the damage is at her own hands—but she is one of the strongest characters in the book. Even though she has these huge challenges, she’s trying to figure herself out so that she can save herself.
Rumpus: And then there’s the two meth-dealing brothers who trigger the book’s chase by stealing the horse in the first place. There’s something inherently comical about these guys.
Meno: They’re deeply flawed. Edward is someone who thinks he’s smarter than he actually is, and has these grandiose plans, like ‘I’m going to be a person who introduces crystal meth to Indiana.’ Oh great, what an ambitious goal, you know? He’s also using drugs and he was recently released from prison. I wanted him to be a Shakespearean kind of person. Like, while he was in prison, he read a bunch of Shakespeare. He decided that that’s how he’s going to move around in the world, but then he can’t follow through. He’s like, ‘Well I’m going to go in and rob this store.’ He’s like talking in this very formal tone and then he walks out and forgets to rob the place. He’s more concerned with his grandiosity. But then hopefully he’s terrifying, too, because you don’t know what this guy’s going to do, what horrible momentary decision he’s going to make.
Rumpus: Yes, it has this biblical feeling to it in the sense that any stranger, some guy like Edward, could function as a terrible god by doing something horrific to us out of nowhere.
Meno: I don’t want any of the characters to feel like straight up archetypes or caricature. For me, there are these moments of complexity and surprise. And that’s what terrifies. In the crime genre or the Western genre, a lot of times those antagonists are perfect, they’re perfect at what they do, they’re unstoppable. That’s a certain kind of drama. But to me what’s terrifying is a mom who’s addicted to crystal meth and puts her baby in the car and tries to pawn their TV and gets in a car crash on the way. That is way more terrifying, the sense of it being irrational, erratic, and totally imperfect.