Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Wink at Me

One of my very favorite book experiences is receiving an ARC that you forgot you requested.  You don't know anything about it, or at least, you've forgotten what you may have once known.  You don't have high hopes.

And it ends up being fantastic.

I'm not quite sure how I stumbled upon Wink by Eric Trant on Netgalley.  Serendipity at work.  My brain, which often makes strange decisions, decided that this was YA, and so that's how I filed it on my Kindle.

Yes, my Kindle has genre folders.  I must categorize.  Like a categorization Dalek.

I hesitate to label this as a Southern Gothic, mainly because I associate Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner with that subgenre, and I'm not entirely sure that Wink belongs there.  But it feels Gothic, and it is set in the South, so let's run with it.

Marty's life is pretty rotten, but he's gotten used to compartmentalizing the danger and the horror and the squalor of his existence.  His is the quintessential dysfunctional family.  His mother has "spells" or rages when she violently attacks others, with strength far beyond her 100-pound frame.  It's not entirely clear whether she's taking meth or not, but she definitely has an untreated mental disorder (says the armchair diagnostician).  Marty's mom's instability also stems from what happened to his brother Gerald.  A few years ago, the boys were playing with dad's gun, and Marty accidentally shot Gerald in the head.  We, as readers, can't really judge or blame Marty.  He was a kid in a family where "gun safety talks" had negative priority on the parenting list.  Now Gerald, once strong and funny, lies in a hospital bed, brain dead, hooked up to a respirator, in a diaper.  He has no adequate mental treatment and his back is just open bed sores.  It's utterly horrific, but this is Marty's reality.

And Daddy dearest?  If I told you that his aspiration was to kill a guy, and that he was bummed that he hadn't quite gotten there yet, do you get it?  He leaves the family for unknown periods of time, doing who-knows-what, and then roars up in his truck, demanding unshaken cans of beer and lounging around in dirty underwear.  He and Gerald's mom get into it constantly.  This usually ends with Gerald's mom doing something really terrifying, like trying to gouge out his eye with a crochet hook.

Wait, we haven't even gotten to the "horror" part of the novel, as one would define "horror."  In my reading experience, Gerald's day to day existence really added to the horror aspect of the novel.  This was made even more powerful by the knowledge that kids really do live in these conditions.  That was probably scarier than any boogerbear.

"Boogerbear?" you ask?  "What's so scary about something called a boogerbear?  Sounds lame."  Actually, it's a perfect name for something you don't want to believe exists.  But it does, of course.  Given Gerald's charting of the setting sun given in the second chapter, and the repeated mentions of I-10, I have wielded Google Maps in a mighty way and figured out that this probably takes place in southeast Texas.  There's talk of Cajun granddads, so there's a definite Bayou influence and flavor to the story.  "Boogerbear" fits into the vernacular of the American bogeyman quite nicely.  Kind of like how Stephen King's Walkin' Dude should be silly, but is just plain scary as all get out.

So.  Gerald's just trying to survive.  He's found a bowie knife blade at the dump and is making a special carved handle for it.  His uncle was a woodworker, and after Gerald shot his brother, Gerald's mom kicked him out, and Gerald learned woodworking.  He has a gift.  Intricate designs that should be difficult simply flow from Gerald, though the knife, into the wood.  His neighbor, a young girl who lost the use of her legs in a car accident, can see him hiding in the attic, carving.  She cares about him and persuades her mother, who ardently believes that Gerald's house is full of wickedness, to let her meet Gerald.  Their meeting sparks both downfall and salvation.

As the book progresses, we find out unsettling things about Gerald's house.  Not only is it full of his mother's hoarding, but it's also full of snakes.  I mean full of snakes. 

Bull snakes, rat snakes, snakes in the walls, snakes everywhere.  Plus, Gerald starts hearing footfalls in the attic when no one can possibly be up there.  The heavy clomping of a boot--heel, toe, heel, toe.  Black shapes, feathery and full of wrongness, flutter from the eaves.  These are the boogerbears: once held at bay by Gerald's uncle's glass eye--he'd wink at them--but now loose again.

The climax of the book is horrifying, unsettling, and yet perfect for the story.  Eric Trant manages to take many disparate elements: winged beasts, mental illness, brain death, child abuse, paraplegia, and salvation, to name just a few, and concoct a marvelous story that hits you like a sucker punch.  You're breathless, but you still turn the pages for more more more.

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