A Convoluted Book Review

Two Books with a Surprising Common Theme:

an Unlikable Hero

 

1.     Dan Goodrich’s Mercury Champagne

(Erie Harbor Productions, 2008)

 

2.     Dan Simmons’ The Terror

(Back Bay Books, New York, 2007)

I read these two books within a short time of each other, The Terror first, which has a very likely, but largely unlikable, hero and is set in the killing cold of the Arctic.

Then I read Mercury Champagne which is set in the colder parts of the  northern US and Canada, and is coping with ice and snow as well.  Its hero is unique: I have never before read a book with an unlikely hero who is also unlikable and stays unlikable throughout the book.  The back cover description of the book says the main character is an “idiot,” which he is not really, but he comes close.  He is a character that as a reader you try to urge on to be more savvy and more heroic and more expansive in his thinking and doing, but he just fails every test, almost.  The one test he seems to pass has a tragic outcome and you wonder if it was a pass or a fail but you are desperate to give him the benefit of the only scrap of a doubt you are fed in the entire book.

Speaking of tragedies, in both books the death tolls are unnerving.  In The Terror death stalks the party of interest because of extreme cold and deprivation, supplemented by a daunting and flesh-ripping supernatural source of terror.  In Mercury Champagne the cause of deaths is entirely supernatural, but under ‘human’ control.  The official forensic cause-of-death determinations are all ‘natural.’  

There could not have been a greater contrast between the two main characters of these books.  In The Terror there are two main characters, the first is Captain Francis Crozier and the second is his commanding officer Captain Sir John Franklin.  They are Navy men at the epitome of an honored and celebrated sector of British society: they are part of their nation’s scientific exploration effort.  Their exploits are the talk of the nation, so to speak. They are leaders, men of action and accomplishment.  That makes them likely heros.  Crozier is the main man in the story, but when he slavishly follows the orders of his superior, in keeping with Naval and seafaring discipline, it is sometimes hard to separate the two characters.

Contrast this with Ed Derringer in Mercury Champagne who hides his persona in a job he does well enough, but not quite well enough to keep from being let go.  He makes it a point to not interact with his coworkers. He takes his self pity at losing his job to the local bar where he sickens himself with alcohol and chain-smoking.  Can there be a less likely hero?  Maybe, but we are really quite close to the bottom of the pile, and the author does not at all attempt to built anything into this character that you can grab hold of and say “there is something about this man I like.”  

Usually when I read a book I get into a character as if it is me, that is how I read.  I experience a different life that way.  Since I do not smoke or drink, Ed’s two primary passions, I am a bit handicapped with him from the start.  Nevertheless I try and make myself Ed, after all I used to do those things, but never to the extent Ed has them down as a definition of who he is.  I do recall at one point noticing that I could think of nothing but my next cigarette at one point, so I could empathize with those moments in Ed’s story.

At every turn, at every choice, I am crying “no, Ed!  Not that way!  This way!”  His character is masterfully crafted to be not just unlikely, but unlikable to a very thoroughgoing extent with no relief at all throughout the book.  There are always glimmers of hope, but then Ed comes onto the scene and blocks them like he might block sunlight.  Ed casts a permanent shadow in every direction.

How is the character crafted so as to be, and to my surprise stay, unlikable?  He cannot get along with his sister whatsoever, and even avoids his paraplegic mother who the sister takes care of.  He can’t handle their neediness.  He has no friends, let alone a wife or a girlfriend.  He is a loner.  

Taken all together these are characteristics I just cannot relate to.  It is a failure of character that keeps him this way, with booze and cigarettes his only friends and allies in this world and also, surprisingly, in the supernatural world.  Ed is so very different from me I had to finesse my attempt to be Ed, I had to consciously decide to stop getting upset with him and just go with the flow of what it might be like to really be Ed.  I very seldom have to do that.

In The Terror, for example, I start out liking Crozier but over time developed the same feelings as expressed among the men he commands: after a while I tire of him (me) and tire of him as his (dictated from above) orders pile up and aggravate what is already a natural disaster.  Because I served in the military, however, I could see the logic in his following orders even he was not sure of, and I ended up wanting to say but not saying to myself “no Crozier!  Not That way! This way!”  Because I had more respect for and understanding of what motivated this man, I was not as disenchanted with him as I was with Ed in Mercury Champagne though I probably should have been.  

There is a very interesting culture-clash in both stories.  And in both stories the supernatural played its role as a part of that alternative culture.  In The Terror we meet natives, Eskimos, and I was instantly endeared to them because of their apparent good heartedness and uncannily savvy survival skills.  They are a means to saving this group of men, but the men cannot bring themselves to see this band of natives as a source of saving knowledge, and instead rob them of what is edible, giving them a meal and plunging them right back into the mess they were already in.  But this was the act of a rabble of men, rogues, and Crozier was not to blame, in fact he saw the potential in making friends with and learning from these natives.  

I kept hoping that the Naval officers, and thus their men, would allow themselves to be humble and adaptable enough to learn from them and thus be saved by them.  But it was not to be except in the case of . . .  But now I am about to let too much plot out of the bag, so will stop with one last observation: the supernatural was not a threat to the natives, they knew how to control, or just soothe, this force  to some extent, creating a degree of interdependence and defusing what was a deadly hostility between this power and the sailors and their officers.

Mercury Champagne had a very different culture clash.  It was a clash between a very self-serving sorcerer who fed his power by taking from normal-seeming persons who, unbeknownst to themselves, had sorcerous abilities.  In the process there is destruction of life and property that is frightening, and total disregard for the worth or dignity of an individual or life in general just as Nature’s forces seem to have no regard for life.  The life-threatening cold of northern Winter and especially its deadly winds is a constant reminder playing in the background, and seem to be in league with or under the control of these same types of supernatural forces.  This strongly suggests that the sorcerer, far from being a person with supernatural powers, is instead a person who has a more intimate connection with Nature and thus has unusual powers over the forces of Nature. Ed only survives because of the intervention of several inhabitants of this spirit- dimension, including one dead Jack Kerouac, who is a celebrated poet and avant-garde writer from the 1940's and 50's, who teaches him that his particular path to power lies in his single-minded manner of drinking and smoking, especially the smoking.

Cantaneda-esque second sight and luminous strands of connectedness occur in this book.  They are not invoked excessively and actually at one point serve our reluctant hero's seeing he is in a different mode of being, making him aware of being a sorcerer, one of some significant power.  There is one scene where the failure of part of the second sight on the part of an adversary helps our reluctant hero, our main character.  He is a person often called an idiot but, in my view, he is not at all an idiot.  He is simply a person of limited thought, curiosity and vision, even when his vision is supernaturally expanded!

I don’t want to let too much of the plot escape here, but there are several places where my hopes for a change in Ed’s basic character soared.  For example, when he is helped by supernatural figures in human forms I felt my hopes being kindled by the author just so he could allow them to go out again.  I supposed the author was telling me that Ed was Ed no matter what world he found himself in.  

Finally there was one place where my ever renewed hopes for Ed’s finally shining was totally and irrevocably crushed.  The last millionth of an ounce of expectation that this hero would finally become likable was quenched like a cigarette thrown into snow when Ed, idiot-so-called but not really, made an observation to himself.  This is when he is now fully aware of his powers, he has just won a battle via a mercy-killing of some questionable value to the ‘patient,’ and he observes to himself after admitting to himself that he liked sustaining his limited lifestyle using sorcery rather than work:

Ed then thinks about what sorcery is and in his thoughts includes this one:

What Ed does next with his sorcerer’s abilities defies my ability to further tolerate Ed, he tries to bring back the only friend he feels he has had in his life, a man who was dead even when they were friends but whose literature Ed was familiar with and admired!  (That person was Jack Kerouac, whose "beat-generation" books are still in print.)

Did Ed's longing for Jack remind me of Dante and his longing for the very dead Beatrice?  No! But now that you mention it, Dan is just a variant of the name Dante, so I am apparently convoluting three Dan-tales, not just two.

Mercury Champagne is a great antidote to the worshipful, mystical interpretation of sorcery and sorcerers in Castaneda’s series of books.  I do hope that in his next novel the author creates a character that at least a mother could love, even if I still can’t.

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