Saturday, January 26, 2019

THE KING'S EVIL, mid-career offering from CanLit leading light David Helwig


Beaufort Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
from $4.99 hardcover, available from various sellers

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Dross stands on the precipice of sanity. One of his last lucid thoughts is that he knows he's going to tumble, shortly, into the abyss of madness. He is drugged by his past, haunted by his mother's madness, addicted to the memories of the woman who rejected him and later died in a hospital cancer ward. He does not know where she is buried.

Trapped in his personal history, Dross packs up his unwieldy body, takes a leave of absence from his work, and moves into his vacationing cousin's house in Niagara. Alone, mesmerized by log fires, Dross doubts if anything can keep him from insanity's beckoning flames.

There is an intruder, however, a knocking on his consciousness, a woman, a stranger with information about his cousin's house. She tells Dross she is a historical researcher and that the house had been razed in 1823 and was rebuilt on the original eighteenth century foundation. He explores the ancient basement one sleepless night. Through a hole in the wall Dross spies another room, deeper than the basement. Hidden there he finds an old book in a locked box, and in the book a secret. The owner was King Charles I who, according to history, was beheaded, but according to the cryptograms and notations in the margin, escaped his recorded fate and lived under another identity on the same foundation where Dross now stands. This is what Dross needs: One small thread of external thought to weave into a web large enough to catch him from his fall. The house in which he cannot sleep, the house in which he consumes too much brandy and too little food, has a history longer and more involved than his own.

Bolstered by a new obsession, Dross sets out to prove history wrong, and in this pursuit he, like Charles I, avoids his own fate.


My Review
: I like Wikipedia's "Recent Deaths" obituary aggregation feature. I learned of David Helwig's existence from it. Being a CanLit fancying Murrikun, I sallied forth to the ALIScat site and, after discovering there were several Helwig titles available, eenie-meenied Coming Through: Three Novellas. See my review for details of my appreciation for Author Helwig's writing. The title of this work amused me. The conceit of Charles I not losing his head on 30 January 1649 (370 years ago this week) appealed to me. This slim book appeared among the eight holds I needed to pick up at my local library a few days ago, before they were due to be returned to their originating branches. Faithless to common sense's proddings, I jumped it up the queue. I came home to eagerly begin reading the story at once.

I'm a hopalong reader, not ordinarily reading books...even short one go. A chapter here, a subheading there, is my habit. It's a means of lowering my Pearl-Rule rate from over half of all library books I pick up. This book, however, grabbed me and kept me reading, with interruptions for canoodling with my Young Gentleman Caller when he showed up to surprise me; I then was implored to make us some food in order to prevent his young body from wasting away. At least that's how he presented the situation to me, poor hungry lamb. Despite some dire flap copy (see above), which usually bodes ill for how I receive the book, I dove deep into the story before my starveling was all the way out my door (carrying a hunk of my homemade banana bread as insurance against recurrent malnourishment).

It's a great pity to me that there are only remnant hardcover copies of The King's Evil still available. Bunim & Bannigan, Helwig's Canadian publishers, don't appear to have the rights to this title as they don't list it for sale. But I'm realistic enough to sense that most people with any interest in the quiet pleasures of a bereaved-but-bereft unhusband's descent from grief into madness will most likely do as I did. The library is, in some places anyway, still the best resource for unusual and out-of-the-way older books.

Dross, as our hero is unsubtly named, is a CBC radio producer passing quickly through middle age. The CBC is a public broadcaster, as is the USA's NPR. Dross discovers his age and his long-term employment work against him for the first time. Unlike earlier eras, in the 1980s "market forces" began to be heeded in those previously secure, almost tenure-tracked, halls. He is peddling an idea for a series of shows on the oh-so-exciting world of art forgery, its detection, and the punishments meted out to the forgers.
Each artist has a signature that comes before his (sic) signature. ... An expert graphologist can always find a slight failure in any forged signature, for the handwriting is the exponential product of all the tiny differences of hand, arm, eye, brain.
Dross's equally middle-aged wife has recently jilted him for a hot young stud; at least that's what Dross thinks he is. (We never see him, or her for that matter, in any concrete setting. We have only Dross's narrative, therefore only his perception, of all other people he interacts with.) Her purpose in removing herself and her clothes, nothing else, from her marriage is that she is dying of cancer. She wishes to do so without her unloved husband hanging on her. Dross as rejected man as well as narrator is out of control from page one. We move vertiginously among the first, second, and third persons. We aren't ever on secure narrative footing—then again Dross isn't, either.

As Dross grapples with the heavy, slippery, unbalancing load that is his survivor's grief, his always vivid dream life spirals ever more widely. We're not given any more respite from the horrifying imagery of those dreams than he is. Down and down we go, landing briefly at some painful moment recalled surrealistically; imagination untrammeled by logic, and its effects on his mental health, bring us (reluctantly on my part) along as he delves deeply into the emotional and cultural roots of faking culturally significant objects for personal gain:
Forgery takes place, I've decided, at that mysterious point of intersection between fact and desire. Does it matter if the brush of El Greco touched a supposed El Greco once or a dozen times or a thousand? ... And yet something hangs on the difference between what is and what is not. Otherwise we would be at sea among impressions. Fact is the one defense against solipsism.
Author Helwig gives us this wonderful aperçu from the unsteady, trembling lips of a man unmoored from any reliable handle on reality. Its truth is both brighter and heavier than it would be coming from a more tightly wrapped individual than the disintegrating Dross, fearful for his job, worried about his mistily perceived loss of perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

While he's noodling over the idea for his forgery forgery presented on the radio, that least visual of media...he's realistic enough to know what his hard-driving American-marketing-trained new boss is likely to think about the topic:
"You get a good hard-rock station and stick the speaker in your ear, and it goes straight to the little arteries in your balls. ... Sound that really hits people. Puts them back against the wall."
This is spoken to Dross over a lunch that's the moment when he is pushed out of his comfortable perch among the almost-tenured, ostensibly to grieve and find his emotional balance. He knows that his boss, who is always referred to as "Rand Nordstrom," his full name, wants the Old Guard civil servants like Dross to make way for more men like himself. This moment was so infuriatingly real to me; I remember 1984 as the rotten core of the Reagan Administration, a time of upheaval in the newly deregulated media markets. The Rand Nordstroms of that place and time ended up gifting us with Fox News and reality TV. Gone were the days of Edward R. Murrow making Harvest of Shame with CBS's full support, Woodward and Bernstein affecting in a positive way the course of the Watergate hearings with newspaper owner Katharine Graham's full support. Entertain, don't educate; obfuscate, don't elucidate. People are plumb tuckered out and don't need nothin' makin' 'em think! Advertisers want happy happy, joy joy.

We did not arrive at a world where Trump could get into the White House quickly, or by accident, and Dross's experiences in the 1980s media world illuminate a corner of that process.

Sorry, back to the book. Dross's mental health crisis assumes ever-larger proportions as he leaves the big city of Toronto to recuperate in Niagara, a Canadian version of Colonial Williamsburg. His cousin and her husband, successful entrepreneurs, are visiting the South of France and their Niagara house needs looking after for the winter. Being in a place where he never spent time with his no-longer wife has the curious effect on Dross of allowing his suppurating psychic abandonment wounds to erupt into a full-on break from reality. In his imaginings, or just possibly in his physical reality, Dross goes through a transformative series of events that bring to him objects, real solid objects, that carry clues shedding light on an historical mystery.

The Execution of Charles I has long been mooted to be a sham, with an impostor taking the King's place on the scaffold. There were sufficient oddities in the lead-up to the event, after the King's trial and conviction, that enabled this conspiracy theory to persist for over 350 years. And now Dross has Niagara, Ontario, in 1984...undiscovered concrete evidence which could easily be interpreted as supporting the King's survival!

An actual, physical copy of a Royalist apologia called the Eikon Basilike or "Portrait of the King" circulated soon after Charles's execution. Dross, holding an ancient annotated copy of the text, reads the words purportedly written by the executed monarch:
Freedom, Moderation and impartialitie are sure the best tempers of reforming Councels, and endeavours; what is acted by Faction, cannot but offend more than it pleaseth.
And in the eighteenth-century (is it?) hand is written beside this and along the bottom of the page.
Hard words. He would take from Man what no man has ever agreed to give, and can never, without being less than Man.
Dross resonates to those words, finding in them a link to his personal predicament. His dreams take on a new and darker tinge as he absorbs the truth and wisdom and possibility he feels resident in his bizarre, concrete discovery.

In his ever-increasing excitement at uncovering more and more slight-but-real links in a chain of evidence that could lead to an American afterlife of sorts for the King, Dross begins a long physical and psychic journey to Virginia, then to London, and ultimately to Chester, rustling long-untouched papers and communing with long-forgotten scholars, nearly dead aristocrats, and his own fractured and betrayed emotions as King Charles replaces art forgers in his rabid obsessive drive to gain personal and historical perspective:
It was necessary to invent history in order to invent the future. The sense of necessity in Cromwell and Lenin (and even in Jefferson) springs from an obsession with time, change, an obsession with cause and effect that starts to make the effect seem like the cause of its own cause. The future is the cause of the past, and we play antiquarian games to reassure ourselves that the past is past and different so that we can believe that the future will be different too.
His arrival in Lord Firebrace's stately home is followed by some of the book's strangest, most disturbing dreams, narrated as always by a slightly breathless Dross. All through the novel he always seems to me just on the edge of an embarrassingly public as well as humiliatingly small erection. Dross, rejected by his wife as she faces her end of life, is what he always has been: a fat, weak kid. He narrates his horrifying, hard-to-read nightmare of youthful bullying by the sporty boys. It's amazing how graphic Author Helwig makes those bit players's language. It has an outsized impact on the reader because it's found nowhere else. Author Helwig couples this crudeness with the most refined cruelty aimed at breaking Dross utterly. He's aware now, as adult Dross, that had he been homosexual he could've understood why the boys beat him, reviled him, made him their bitch.

Do I need to say how much NO that brings up for me? We're talking about events that occurred in the 1950s, which is the only reason I didn't stop reading and Just Say No a la Nancy Reagan. I still found it extremely distasteful for Author Helwig to trot this ancient homophobia-makes-sense argument out. What saved the day, for me at least, was the equivocal nature of his invocation of homosexuals as weak, fat, effeminate...Dross is describing himself, using the prejudices of the day to hate himself, making his self-loathing into a rock on which he builds his identity:
I hesitate to have a bath in case the huge narcissist's mirror across from the tub catch my eye and force me to see my flabby body and scream at its inadequacies.

We shouldn't need to be beautiful.
He's a homely lardass; his wife, who in one of his flights of fancy (or possibly one of his memories) says of Dross that she never loved him; he finds no protest, no aggrieved denial of this horrible rejection. In fact he accepts that Nora (a name we see applied to his wife exactly once in the text) couldn't have loved him, no other woman ever has. His mother was simply damaged goods...several memories of her erratic, borderline schizophrenic, behaviors as he was growing up rang awful memory bells in my head...his beautiful cousin simply didn't bother to know who Dross is...his wife simply couldn't be bothered not to let him "have access to her body," never seeming to care about Dross's attentions.

And then one must bring to mind the fact that the entire book is, more or less, a perfect récit, that French form of simple tale told with a knowing, complicit smile, the narrator and the novelist and the reader all twined about each other's ankles and stumbling from event to event, lurching into dark, cobwebby corners...what a lot of incestuous fantasizing goes on here! what a lot of toxic-masculinity tropism gets deployed to damage the "weaker" characters!...while unfolding an emotional beach umbrella in the shower stall of fat, weak Dross's grief for himself.

He never once grieves for the dead wife. He is hurt by her rejection of him. He is wounded by her taking a studly young lover with a bigger member, a harder body; in the same vein he's hurt by boss Rand Nordstrom's go-getting rejection of the safe, stuffy, dull listener-unfriendly programming that the 1980s CBC no longer has room for, therefor no room for Dross. He's hurt in retrospect by his cousin the Niagara homeowner's past indifference to him, her present so far above his collapsing life that she wings away to France to escape the harsh winter cold her charity allows Dross to use her home as his (unsuccessful) escape from inward-growing ice. Dross exists to be rejected. He cannot fathom his good fortune, his slight-but-real discoveries of clues to an historical event of huge importance. As he gets closer and closer to his search's close he knows where it is but not what to look for...

The ending of the novel doesn't weave the threads together in a neat, orderly pattern. The ending resembles threads from multiple skeins of yarn in just slightly clashing colors wound around each other in a strangely satisfying rope. Soft yarn, rough yarn, thinner and thicker and worn-out threads, wind about each other and vanish into the heart of the rope, emerging briefly at intervals determined by a sundial not a mechanical clock. Dross, dead wife and absent cousin and inaccessible mother carried on his shoulders, reaches across time and slings his malformed and misshapen rope at King Charles I. He catches a prong of the royal crown, drags at it with a feeble victory cry smothered under the women he carries but from whom he never receives any attention.

But Dross has forgotten: The world's first executed, not assassinated or murdered, monarch lost his crown-bearing head.
The human mind exists in chaos and is in love with meaning, so historians go back again and again to try to turn the multitudinous resistant facts into a story.
I never forgot or forgave the casual homophobia or misogyny, the reduction of women to objects of incestuous desire; but Dross's extraordinarily average life is worthy of this tale's beauties. With them come the author's craft failings and imaginative limitations. Imperfect. Ungainly even. But so was Frankenstein, teller, tale, and monster.

Seek this story out and your hoard of facts will be increased.

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