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|REVIEW of Scott Heim's In Awe|
INTO THE SUFFERING BOX
by Jill Adams
While critics asked in 1995 how Scott Heim could possibly follow up the stunning debut novel Mysterious Skin, I was left to ponder, until recently, how one could top the second novel with the first. Living in Spain I somehow missed out on Scott Heim until a manuscript of In Awe passed my way last January. Far and away one of the most exciting and daring novels I've encountered in a long time, I was equally awed by Mysterious Skin when my personally ordered copy arrived a few months later. Heim is an extraordinary storyteller whose novels keep one turning the pages for all the right reasons. His prose is at once clean and bountiful, tangible and darkly lyrical, displaying his mastery with language; and his characters live on as though they were your "soul mates" or worst nightmares from some hazy past of your own. Yes, the novels are disturbing and shocking. Mysterious Skin deals with young Brian Lackey's slow discovery of what happened during a missing five hours in his life at age eight, a lapse which early on points to severe sexual abuse by the town's Little League coach, but which he associates with a possible UFO abduction. Both novels portray teen boys who happen to be in love with teen boys, although the gay theme takes a back seat to what is every teen's obsession: love of some unattainable someone. The setting is small-town Kansas, rich in local atmosphere - thunderstorms, swollen rivers, grain silos. And the content is strong stuff, real strong stuff.
In Awe opens with Chapter One of 16-year-old Boris Appleby's novel-in-progress, March of the Zombies, telling of an old woman, a young woman, and a young boy, emerging from the muddy earth. Then comes the third person narrator filling us in on the real life characters behind this high school fiction. Boris is living in a youth home, having had various foster families who didn't work out, and winning the Arts Contest for his writing at Lawrence West High School is his big ambition. That and getting his love interest, the scruffy HS senior Rex, to love him back, a hopeless wish since Rex doesn't know he exists and is heterosexual anyway. But back up: Heim doesn't fill us in on Boris all at once. His story is carefully interwoven with those of the two women and it all unfolds - from varying points of view - along with Boris's novel-in-progress.
The two women are first seen at the hospital bedside of Marshall, town gay and AIDS victim. Widow Harriet, Marshall's quiet and eccentric mother, lovingly tends to him as does the trashy-sexy, 32-year-old Sarah, Marshall's "soulmate" from back when she herself was a resident at the Sunflower Youth Home and student at Lawrence West where she met Marshall. The two women and Boris are drawn together like magnets at the hospital where he is doing volunteer community service as duty for the youth home. "What outcast doesn't notice another, their gazes crashing head-on with equal degrees of admiration and contention, as if being misfit is a contest?" Within a few months Marshall dies and Boris, already a part of the "family," assumes the role he inherited from Marshall. Sarah takes him under wing, sneaks him out of the youth home at night as Marshall used to do for her, listens to his confessions of love for Rex, presents him with her "Suffering Box" (to keep mementos of "whatever is symbolic of your pain"), and generally serves to rescue Boris from the utter isolation of his life at the youth home. Boris reciprocally saves Sarah from the exile imposed on her by her reputation as town whore, a reputation presumably earned from her teen (perhaps preteen) years when circumstance conspired to form or, as Sarah says, "smell her future." Both Boris and Sarah cling to and help the much older Harriet, "her back once candlepin-straight, now bent like a sickle"; her dyed hair "the color of raw ham," who becomes "scatterbrained" after the loss of her son. Harriet and Sarah each contribute chapters based on personal experience to Boris's March of the Zombies, thereby providing a structural intricacy that nicely serves to build and move the narrative while reviving Marshall to a living character.
The trio of outcasts, briefly a foursome, draw stares from the townies who see only "an eccentric and wild-eyed old lady, a blushing boy with the long hair of a girl, a woman in a low-cut dress. An obviously sick man." Types that don't into fit the social fabric of Lawrence, Kansas. Types that induce three high school Senior hoods to scrawl obscene graffiti on Sarah's VW: GUTTERSLUT, HOMO, TRASH MOTHERFUCKERS; graffiti that Sarah defiantly refuses to get rid of, preferring to parade it as a badge of honor and distinction just as she later displays the VW's smashed windows and frame.
The pervasive dark and haunting atmosphere is made darker by the disappearance of two university sorority girls, assumed drowned by the flooding river according to the newspaper although the townspeople fear otherwise. One of the girls washes up the day of Marshall's funeral and that night while gazing at the river Boris and Sarah think they've discovered the second, only to retrieve a plastic CPR dummy which has been mutilated and used for sex.
The "head-fucked" bad boy Seniors are the perpetuators of the CPR hoax and to fuel their sick fantasies they continue to haunt both Sarah and Harriet. Boris is abused as well, but so obsessed is he with scruffy Rex, who unfortunately is part of the threesome, that he refuses to see him for what he is. Sarah understands this desperation. It becomes known to her that she is the object of ringleader Wayne's fantasies. "And she knows if she were [sixteen] again, if she switched places and ages with Boris and felt the hammerhead burn of Wayne's desire, she would surrender." As it is, she continues to surrender to her teen reveries of "dreaming myself the star of some bloodchilling film while I ran room to room chased by a pack of insane killers," a fantasy that is only broken when she realizes that the movie villains are Boris's classmates and she the innocent victim.
Time for revenge. Sarah announces that the pursuers are now to be pursued. So: do the outcasts gather force and take 'em out one-by-B-movie-one? If you haven't yet read Scott Heim and this wee synopsis serves as the intro, take heart, take heed, take a drink, and take cover. Heim operates from an altogether different and finer plane, defying classification, be it thriller, Gothic horror, or gay. The Zombie and horror film motif works marvelously as the structural and thematic set up, but it's all an effectively alluring metaphor for the troubled interiors of the outsiders and the horrific real-life nightmare that awaits them, which the author boldly narrates in a manner unique to my reading experience.
Heim's strongest allegiance is to Dennis Cooper, not Stephen King. With one foot securely rooted in the transgressive cult, Heim blasts through the psychic barriers where only devotees of the transgressive dare tread, but with the added element of a powerful empathy. As the final scenes unfold, spiralling off into unchartered territory, the reader gets pushed, as Sarah says, "one step further from what I thought was the barrier." It wouldn't be fair to give away any more of the plot. Let it suffice to say that I didn't think I could make it through to the end sustaining the emotional involvement that had carried me thus far - would I burst out laughing at the outrageousness of it all? Feel manipulated into a voyeuristic position or led into a scene with only shock value to sustain it? No, no, and no. Through sheer emotional honesty and intensity, Heim miraculously manages to pull the reader, heart and mind, through an electrifying, darkly erotic encounter as the outcasts enter the Suffering Box, so to speak, in the form of a junked school bus in the middle of nowhere one dark, stormy night. And he leaves us with that rarest of all things: a perfect last touch on the ending. I'm sure I won't be the only reviewer to say that In Awe left me in awe, but that it did; it's that good.
Review by Jill Adams
ŠThe Barcelona Review 1997
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