Last Things: Unwise Blood
by David Searcy
Published by Scribner
356 pages, 2002
What if Flannery O'Connor and Stephen King had met, married and mated?
Reviewed by David Abrams
Their offspring would probably have resembled something like the novels of David Searcy: dark, tangled and lurking with ominous mysteries of the soul. These are books in which the Holy Spirit could very well be that misshapen Thing lurking beneath the basement stairs. In Searcy's fiction, the violent not only bear it away, they leave a trail of slime in their wake.
The simplest sort of horror story (and the most gratifying somehow) starts with the damage -- something ruined in ways too peculiar to explain, glimpsed, say, at high speed along a country highway at dusk just at that rosy half-lit moment before one flips on the headlights: Little jerks of their eyes now to the right -- hers then his, but then it's gone and they fall silent watching the pink light leaving the tops of the pines: he looks back once in the mirror but everything's shadowy against the sky like one of those black and orange silhouette landscapes schoolchildren produce at Halloween -- such an easy effect yet so dramatic with all the particulars of the world hopelessly lost in the radiance.
A scarecrow? Well… yes and no. Searcy never comes out and fully describes the carcasses splayed out on cross-timbers around the countryside, but the woman in the car hurtling down the highway imagines it to be:
something dead, run over and tossed up onto a fence or a bush somehow, not a person but a deer, maybe a dog flattened by the impact like in a cartoon, unfolded, ears out sideways like a hat, all spread out and presented rose-colored in the sunlight in the corner of her eye, a scatter of teeth across its face.
It's just one of several strange sights that have been cropping up near the east Texas town of Gilmer where Luther Hazlitt -- an odd, stoic man who lives by himself in an isolated trailer surrounded by grass, cattle, chickens and puppies -- is trying to sort out all the premonitions of things to come. A little girl vanishes, leaving behind "little bits of hair like in a barbershop"; a chicken's skeleton -- every bone intact -- appears in a mailbox; "luminous green thunderstorms" boil on the horizon; and the county sheriff has just caught a monstrous fish which he promptly puts on display in the freezer down at Joe's Big Juicy Hamburgers. Like O'Connor's mummy in Wise Blood, the giant fish becomes an object of worship. It's not long before people are on their knees in prayer in front of Joe's Big Juicy freezer. Wise Blood's Hazel Motes and Enoch Emery in his gorilla suit are just around the corner.
He [Luther] saw a rabbit once -- a cottontail -- get run over; a truck just ran right over the top of it, the rabbit rolled a little ways and Luther walked over to where it was -- pretty much undamaged except it was dead and lying near it in the road was the rabbit's heart, itself undamaged, beating away as if the rabbit and its life were separate things that might get along without each other; and for a moment you could see that. How the heart didn't even know about the rabbit. It might be beating for a possum or a squirrel for all it knew or, as in this case, for nothing at all. You had this rabbit, then over here you had its heart and in between there was this distance, absolutely nothing.
Unfortunately, that same distance between heart and body is a problem that plagues the book itself. Searcy has created a fine, odd world and peopled it with equally odd characters (Luther, for instance, is literally trying to trap the Holy Spirit), but the overbloat of sentences fat with big words and languorous phrasing puts a dull edge on whatever suspense he manages to create. The menace is too indistinct, the violence too subtextual to raise anything but the most modest of goosebumps.
David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.