There is nothing wrong with weird fiction. Thomas Pynchon's novels (and personal life) are weird, but Gravity's Rainbow won the National Book Award. Local writer Peter Rock's weird collection of short stories, The Bewildered, was nominated for an Oregon Book Award this year. So weird writing can be good. Even very good.
But bad writing—even if it is about weird things—is, well...just bad.
Oregon Coast-based writer V.O. Blum's latest novel, Split Creek (Times Eagle Books, 211 pages, $11.95), contains avant-garde, moral and hypersexual writing. Subtitled "War Novel of the Deep West," the book follows Friedrich Dassen, one of 400,000 German soldiers sent to live in more than 150 American POW camps during World War II.
This weird—but essentially true—premise gets weirder: Dassen's communist mother taught him that fascism was morally wrong. Yet while interned in the fictional Western state of "Teton," Dassen befriends a group of Aryan-supporting, Hitler-loving American fascists. He even practices tantric sex with Helen, daughter of Bud, the fascists' leader, and impregnates her. Dassen then relieves his guilt by visiting a Native American medicine man, and smokes peyote to find his power animal (seriously).
Weirdness only succeeds when good writing makes it believable—like a Pynchonian conspiracy that initially seems impossible but eventually feels all too real. Blum can't pull this off, and this is what makes Split Creek so bad. Dassen's journey through nature clearly represents the simpler way of life that fascists are destroying. Dassen's attraction to Helen and loyalty to Bud clearly re-creates the family Dassen feels he's lost. But Blum fails to draw a realistic connection between these all-too-transparent story lines, creating a ridiculous, preachy mess.
Obviously Blum disapproves of fascism and uses Split Creek to compare the political climate of America during World War II and America's involvement in Iraq. But whenever characters are yelling, Blum uses a technique that distracts from the merit of the moral discourses: ALL-CAPITAL LETTERS. Dassen's arguments against fascism look like this: "OR SHOULD WE HAVE OVENS IN TETON LIKE THEY ARE HAVING IN POLAND?" Dassen (and Blum) makes loud and whiny points like this over and over again throughout the novel.
At the end of the novel's introduction, Reed College professor (and former WW food critic) Roger Porter writes, "Dassen becomes the advocate of the best that America might be." Ideologically this might be true, but based on Blum's characterization of Dassen—a yeller who harps on the same beliefs like a broken record—he also represents all the negative stereotypes of America as a world power: pushy, stubborn and kind of dumb.
Blum reads from
Thursday, Jan. 11, at Looking Glass Bookstore, 318 SW Taylor St., 227-4760. 7 pm. Free.