Anyone who attended Jess Walter's reading last winter at Auntie's most likely remembers getting an unforgettable sneak preview of his next book. "Eli Boyle's dandruff was more than enough indignity for one child," Walter read. "In fact, the word 'dandruff' barely did it justice. He was like a snow globe turned upside down..."
Walter's litany of the boy's afflictions was near nightmarish in proportion: "He had bad breath, like he'd eaten sour cream from a cat box. He had braces on his teeth and his legs; had acne and a unique, bacon-flavored body odor; picked his nose and ate what he mined; exhibited a zest for epic, untimely flatulence..." And it only got worse. "He had grand mal seizures, blackouts, muscles spasms and fits of gagging... scoliosis, skin lesions and scabies."
Worst of all, this Eli Boyle was also "afflicted by the random popping of inappropriate erections..." I'm sorry to say it, but those of us who were there nearly ruptured ourselves to suppress our giggling.
Still, as mesmerizing a character as the unfortunate Eli Boyle is, the novel he came to inhabit -- Land of the Blind -- is only partially his story. His introduction comes as part of the handwritten confession -- all 70,000 words of it -- of one Clark Mason, a one-time classmate of Boyle, a former politician and present-day lunatic, spilling his guts on endless yellow legal pads while a weary detective waits for him to finish. And the detective? Readers of Walter's previous Over Tumbled Graves will be happy to meet Spokane Police Department detective Caroline Mabry once more.
"I wrote the first 40 pages of Clark's childhood, which includes that section I read at Auntie's, all in one burst and then it just kind of sat there," explains Walter, who returns to Auntie's to read from Land of the Blind next week. "I had two novels I was already working on -- one featuring Caroline -- but I couldn't write any more of the Clark stuff because I felt like it didn't have any structure. But as I read through it, it felt kind of like a confession, and when I started writing it that way, I loved it. Just the idea of his telling this story from the past while you meet these people in the present, that was the structural piece that I needed."
Walter's first book, Over Tumbled Graves, was also set in Spokane and -- in the vernacular of certain TV programs -- was based on stories "ripped from today's headlines." The novel followed the efforts of a troubled female detective to find the guy responsible for a rash of prostitute killings, but was finished just weeks before the arrest of real-life Spokane serial killer Robert L. Yates. Yet although Land of the Blind continues the story of detective Caroline Mabry, and although there appears to be both a perpetrator and a confession, Walter's book is a lot more complex than your typical crime novel.
"That's one of the difficult things for me, is knowing that people might pigeonhole it as a crime novel or as just a sequel to Over Tumbled Graves," says Walter. "But it doesn't feel like a crime novel to me, and I don't think of [Mabry] as a detective. I know I'm straddling both worlds, though. Even by naming that first section 'It Is Customary With This Sort of Thing To Start With a Body' I'm playing with those notions a little bit."
If there's one big difference between the two books, it lies in the fact that Land of the Blind is more fun than Over Tumbled Graves. In addition to the Clark's over-the-top childhood recollections, there is humor in the irony of a burned-out detective suddenly realizing her rather unhinged perp might actually be not bad dating material. The structure of the book even employs a certain playfulness. The chapter titles are all taken from the first three words of each chapter (things like "I got drunk" and "Nobody emerges whole"), and Walter has amassed a fine, surprisingly amusing collection of literary quotes related to various degrees of blindness, honesty and insight.
But even in its comparative lightness, Land of the Blind is a richer, deeper book. Walter is fearless in mining the territory of childhood, and in exploring how our wounds shape the people we become.
"The childhood stuff is the stuff in the book I'm most attached to. That idea of connecting adults to their childhood and how we're all carrying around the afflictions of our childhood," he says. "Adult behavior just seems so sophisticated from a distance, but it's not. You get close, and it's like, 'Well, I was kind of gawky as a kid so I'm going to do whatever I can for attention now.' And middle school... I don't know which concentric circle of hell it is, but it's gotta be like number four or five."
In a novel that has to do with childhood and adolescent afflictions, it's still a bit surprising to discover that Walter has given his protagonist Clark one of his own.
"I had it pretty easy compared to Clark, but I did get a stick in my eye when I was five years old," he says. "I wore eye patches when I was a kid, and there's this one phrase in the book where Clark writes about not being able to meet the eyes of the binocular. I remember always being conscious of that. So I decided to give him the affliction that I know about and give Eli everything else. Writing that list of everything this poor kid is saddled with, it was almost biblical. And I love that metaphor of the author as the creator of this universe. If you think about it, creators always go over the top: 'Did you really need to kill the first-born son of everyone in Egypt?' 'Do I really need to have leg braces and acne?' But I knew kids like that."
These days, it seems like Walter is anything but afflicted. The former Spokesman-Review reporter made a name for himself in 1995 with Every Knee Shall Bow, an account of the FBI siege at Ruby Ridge and subsequent trial of Randy Weaver. He co-authored In Contempt with Christopher Darden a few years later, wrote Over Tumbled Graves to considerable critical acclaim and has lunched with Barbara Walters. He even has party anecdotes about Jack Nicholson. He's happily married with three kids and lives in a great big house in West Spokane.
His publisher's decision to use the entire back cover of the book for his author photo seems to indicate his arrival in the halls of Sebastian Junger-esque literary hunkdom, and the inside flap of the book contains a hilarious blurb from Sherman Alexie: "This overachieving jerk has written a great book, and a great second novel at that. Second novels are supposed to be terrible! Now I'm jealous of my friend and of this wonderful, funny, sad, and thrilling book." Walter is also one of the big names at this year's Get Lit!, reading in April right before Lynda Barry on the Saturday night lineup. Still, he admits to being "kind of melancholy by nature."
"There were a few autobiographical things -- things that actually happened -- that I drew on," he says. "But for the most part it was the feelings. It's like what Kurt Vonnegut once said when an interviewer asked him about one of his books, 'Is this about your life?' He said, 'This is what life feels like for me.' I think that's what good fiction does. I think all fiction is about loneliness. The process of writing fiction is about loneliness. That desire to connect with another when there's that space between you.
"In fact, for me writing the novel was very much like Clark writing his confessions," he adds. "Here I am sitting in this room, by myself, telling this story that I don't know if it's going where it's supposed to. I have a deadline, I have a publisher and I remember sending the part that I'd done to my editor, and he was just like Caroline in the story, going, 'Well, is there a body?' And I'd be like, 'Ummmm, yes. I mean no.' Or 'I'll get back to you on that.' I was kind of making it up as I went along."