Let’s get this part out of the way: this is a breakthrough novel, one that makes a career. It’s a book that forces the reader to consider the author behind it, if only so that you can avoid him on the street. It’s so unrelentingly bleak you have to wonder about the mind that created it. You worry about the author’s mental wellbeing and feel a twinge of guilt because you’ve so enjoyed what he pulled out of there and set down on the page.
The plot of The Captive Condition is simple, deceptively so. A young woman named Emily Ryan drowns in her pool one night and a young man wonders why. Was it an accident brought on by too many pills and too much booze? Was it suicide? Was she murdered? The backdrop for this drama is Normandy Falls, a factory town somewhere in NE Ohio, barely hanging on after the factories have died. If the town had a welcome sign, it would read: Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter.
This is a tricky book. A sly book. It appears to be told in the third person, as we get enter the minds of the town’s most depraved inhabitants a chapter at a time. But we eventually learn that the story is being filtered through the mind of that young man, Campion, who fell in love with Emily Ryan from afar. Campion is a graduate of a Jesuit prep school that is a dark reflection of St. Ignatius, where author Kevin Keating went to school. Campion moved to Normandy Falls to attend college but dropped out and joined the maintenance staff, instead. Campion is probably going insane. In fact, he believes Emily’s ghost is communicating through him, using his body as a medium, telling him the “truth” about Normandy Falls. As such, the circumstances and events presented to us in The Captive Condition read like a never-ending nightmare, the delusions of a schizophrenic. After all, no town can be full of so much despair, can it?
Everyone in Normandy Falls is damned. There’s Professor Martin Kingsley, who lives beside Emily, a lech who has been sleeping with her while her husband ships loads of iron ore across Lake Erie. There’s Emily’s twin daughters who watch her body float in the pool with a detached curiosity. Down at the town bistro, chef Xavier brews a rare and potent psychedelic carrot drink called jazar juice, which he sells out the back door so that he can earn enough cash to escape to Delacroix Cay. His waitress, Morgan, plans to steal his money, though, and run away with her lesbian lover. And let’s not forget “the Gonk” Campion’s boss, who blinds him in one eye during a new-employee hazing ritual.
The plot is juicy but it’s Keating’s wordplay that draws a reader in. Early reviewers have already compared his command of prose to Franzen or DFW. Consider the opening lines of the novel:
During the quiet hours after midnight on New Year’s Day, the ghosts of Normandy Falls, manacled like felons to the tomb, temporarily escaped the totalitarian scrutiny of heaven and the moldering prison house of death, and from the forlorn churchyard near the square and the untilled fields in the valley, they assembled under the light of a spectral moon and resolved to haunt those who had denied them love.
Nice, right? He’s got those nice long sentences and can always grasp the exact right archaic word like Franzen or David Foster Wallace. But anyone who’s read classic horror can quickly see he’s more influenced by the words of Poe and Lovecraft than those pretentious Writer’s Lab types.
I found myself marking the book up in red pen quite often because as the novel progresses, Keating drops in some fine life lessons for rust belt living:
Every man, no matter his station in life, is capable of ghastly behavior.
Sobriety is a myth. We all live at various levels of intoxication.
We tend to treat our secret desires, our questionable impulses, our perverse proclivities as monsters. We lock them away, hopefully forever, in the dark dungeon of our soul and then throw away the key. But artists are different in that they keep the key close at hand. Thy become society’s dungeon masters and make the treacherous descent to visit those fearsome creatures, to marvel at their strange, hideous beauty, to listen to the filthy secrets unspooling from their souls, their leaky brains, their ruptured hearts.
And the title? What is the Captive Condition? To Keating, it is a haunting world view.
We dream that we’re awake, then art wakes us up from our dreams, but then we discover that we’re in a dream again, and so forth and so on, ad infinitum, until we arrive at the only logical conclusion: that we are all captives of a hallucination from which we can never truly escape.
This new novel is a hallucination and certainly reads like a terrible trip, like some early Cormac McCarthy. And it was a hallucination I was delighted to be captivated by for a while.
The Captive Condition will be released July 7.
James Renner is a former staff writer and the author of the novel, The Man from Primrose Lane