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UNBURY CAROL is against all odds, a compelling read and an elegant blending of genres. The plot is advertised in advance by the dust jacket. Carol Evers suffers from a chronic condition, subsiding occasionally into a coma-like, death-resembling state; her husband, Clyde, decides to take advantage of one of her episodes to bury her before she recovers, thereby inheriting her considerable estate. Her ex-lover, James Moxie, who, as a young man, ran in fear from her condition and who is now a famous and retired outlaw, gets wind of the plan and, regretting his youthful pusillanimity, rushes to prevent the burial, thus trying to make good on his earlier failure by saving Carol and getting a second chance. The odds against the novel are a compound of our preview of the plot and a familiarity with such narratives as Barbet Schroeder's film, Reversal of Fortune, in which Sunny Von Bülow provides her commentary on her husband from her own comatose state. But whatever familiarity we think we have, be it from dust jacket or film, is undone by Malerman's consummate ability to allow us to know and not know simultaneously. Like Stephen King, who signposts the conclusions of his plots almost from the start of his novels, only to let readers experience the chill and dread of watching them unfold, Malerman deploys his considerable storytelling abilities to create suspense within the parameters of the known.
The comparison to King is no accident. As with THE GUNSLINGER, the first of King's Dark Tower series, UNBURY CAROL has a non-naturalistic western setting, The Trail, complete with outlaws, triggermen, legends, saloon brawls, and brothels; it also has, like King's contemporary New York, which complements his fantasy western world, Harrows, a tony town, complete with a canny detective, Sheriff Opal, a fussy funeral director, Robert Manders, and a clever maid, Farrah Darrow, all of whom have a refined sense for even a whiff of the unordinary. In many respects, though, the comparison ends there, for Malerman doesn't imagine parallel worlds; instead, his west is convincingly low-tech—rooms are lit with candles, torches and lanterns; transportation is strictly by horse or coach; flammables are oil; and graves are dug by hand with shovels. The subject of magic is paramount, but most of the magic turns out to be smoke and mirrors, illusionist tricks and sleights of hand, even though everyone along The Trail wishes desperately for proof that actual magic might exist.
It is that yearning that makes Malerman's world so convincingly familiar, even though it seems so distant and potentially mythic. Myths and legends are constructed around the inexplicable, yet, even when explanations are provided, they are no match for the desire for the stories that are repeated and amplified. If the outlaw is, for example, a dangerous and frightening trickster, he is also a "man made of stories," for it is the stories, not the outlaw, that are of primary significance. The famed James Moxie can't live them down, and everything he does, no matter how prosaic, simply amplifies his mythic stature, at once consolidating and interrogating the legend that surrounds him.
Malerman's metafictional play with the myths he creates, deconstructs, and recreates doesn't get in the way of his engrossing narrative—that play is tidily limited, with only an occasional wink to our knowingness of his adherence, blending, or subversion of genre and his indebtedness to other texts (Eastwood's Unforgiven and McCarthy's BLOOD MERIDIAN spring immediately to mind). At the very least those winks give us a good sense of his adeptness at traversing familiar genres with freshness and energy; at the most, they make us forget how tired those genres can sometimes be and get seduced by them all over again.
The only thing missing from UNBURY CAROL is, really, Carol Evers herself. She is described by others in the novel as brilliant, popular, and worthy of adulation and affection; and she herself features in numerous chapters as, during her comas (in which she can hear and sometimes see others around her), struggling to communicate somehow with the outside world. But she is really the absent centre of the novel, for we know absolutely nothing about what she ever did to be brilliant, or rich, or popular.
Characters talk about her, literally and figuratively, just as they move physically around her and, as her grasping husband, Dwight, does, haul her around bodily from cellar to coach to grave; her legend and stories are conspicuously not told. What we get, in other words, is an unburying of Carol, who nevertheless remains fictionally buried at the novel's end. Which is a bit too bad, because Malerman has the ability to create great characters (witness, for example, the fully complicated characters of Moxie and the triggerman, Smoke; or even those less complex but still engaging characters, like Dwight, Sheriff Opal, and Manders). Yet, there are obvious reasons for Carol's not having much of a presence in the novel—she is, in the end, a kind of legend, whose stories are less embellished and circulated than Moxie's because they are only told once and to a limited audience, which would be us.
§ Nicola Nixon is Associate Professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal, specializing in American literature; she has published on P.D. James.
Reviewed by Nicola Nixon, May 2018
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