There are two kinds of good writing. One concerns itself with undeniable truths. The other tends toward delightful lies. When a writer has both at his command, he is formidable indeed. Robert McCammon has both. If you want proof, just pull his latest novel from the shelf and wallow in his storytelling powers.
Right now that novel happens to be his Depression-era tour de force, The Listener, which is set in Louisiana. If the ghosts of Roald Dahl and Flannery O’Connor were to get drunk and collaborate on a story, it might have a point or two in common with The Listener. Maybe William Faulkner’s spirit would be there, too, to goad the other two on, sore at being the designated driver. But ultimately, this is pure McCammon. And it is McCammon at his very best.
A book that takes on the nature of evil—and this one does—tends to work best when there is more than one layer of malevolence for the reader to contend with. My go-to example is Oliver Twist. When we first encounter Fagin, who lords over his ragtag gang of child thieves, he is abhorrent. But not long after we're introduced to the repugnant and terrifying Bill Sykes, Fagin starts to take on an almost avuncular aspect by comparison.
Layers of evil.
I know It’s not fashionable to spoil, with spoilers, the spoils of a novel, so I’ll do my best to conform, but it’s worth taking a look at how this concept of layers plays out in The Listener. The relationship between John Parr and Ginger LaFrance is one degree more complicated than what Dickens does with Fagin and Sykes, but I think we can unravel it some … without spoiling the meat.
I won’t tell you the first clue you get, but Mr. Parr, who goes by other names as well, is a very bad fellow. Yet he’s more or less contained much of the time. He can get along among the normals enough to play them like harmoniums, but he can only put up with their tomfoolery for so long. Then it’s blasting time. He makes his living selling Bibles to the recently bereaved, convincing them that the dearly departed man of the house had put down a payment on an inscribed family Bible, and he, Mr. Parr, has come round to collect the balance owed. In other words, he is the lowest kind of confidence man: a hearse-chaser. It turns out to be one of his better qualities.
Life changes for John Parr, however, when he crosses paths with one Ginger LaFrance. Ms. LaFrance is a horse of another color and, like Parr, goes by other names. She sees through the small agendas of our very bad fellow at once and turns him on to a wider view of the fertile ground of larceny. She’s a snake-oil peddler when the two of them meet, but it quickly becomes clear that she has larger ambitions, and that Mr. Parr is meant to be a part of them.
It’s almost as if John Parr is set up to be something like the Bill Sykes to Ginger LaFrance’s Fagin, but he has not read to the last page of the ambitious snake-oil peddler’s soul, and she soon gives him more cause for concern than he has bargained for. Their relationship is a whip that cracks and recoils, only to crack and recoil once more.
But there’s evil, and then there’s madness. Parr and LaFrance are touched by both, in varying quantities, and we haven’t even given a thought to Ginger’s troubled—and troubling—nephew, Donnie. For the reader so inclined, there is much in this triangle to chew on with respect to the nature of human mischief.
In describing The Listener on the publisher’s product page, McCammon states that it “isn't exactly supernatural, though there is a ‘strange’ element.” He chooses not to reveal what that “strange” element is, so I won’t either (no spoilage here!). But I will say that it involves a young New Orleans train-station Redcap named Curtis Mayhew, who plays a pivotal role in determining the fate of two kidnapped children, and invites a broader discussion about genre that it might be rewarding to dive into more deeply once The Listener has enjoyed a wider release than the advance reader’s copy that I’ve relied on for this review.
The Listener is, in some ways, unique among McCammon’s novels, but it bears many of his trademark strengths. Here you will find the ferocity of Mine, the observational acuity of The Five, the southern wonder of Boy's Life, and even some of the tenderness of Swan Song. It also shares a special kinship with Gone South. It’s set in the same region as that book, it’s of a similar length (shorter than most of McCammon’s novels), and it’s wild as hell.
Of course, with Robert McCammon it’s always worth commenting on what’s going on at the prose level, too. When he’s really flying, the language is almost poetry, and there’s plenty of high flying to be found in The Listener. Often a scene dissolves on a perfectly turned cadence that sums things up in a startling and powerful way. Or sometimes it’s just a matter of the right description emerging at the right time to clarify our perception of the whole experience, almost like a periodic literary illustration. Take the following, for instance: “The air had turned heavy, the rain had ceased, and in the wet heat the mist rose from Lake Pontchartrain and slowly drifted through the forest leaving pieces of itself hanging in the pines and oaks like old fragments of fragile and yellowed linen.” In a sense, that short passage is the novel in brief, betraying, as it does, a certain atmosphere that presses in on the characters from all sides and at all times.
So I encourage you to get your hands on a copy of this fine book, and to strap yourself in for another “wild ride into terror,” as Dean Koontz once labeled Swan Song. It’s not every day you come across such an intoxicating blend of literary prowess and unapologetic adventure-seeking as what Robert McCammon delivers with The Listener. And you never know, you might just learn a thing or two about how to keep from dying in a viper pit, of which there is more than one in Mr. McCammon’s novel.