LIZARD DREAMING OF BIRDS
High Sierra Books / 217 pages / (April 1, 2004)
A few years ago I coined the phrase “cowboy noir” to describe John Gist’s haunting debut novel CrowHeart. Lizard Dreaming of Birds, his follow-up also has western setting, though much of the time it seems more suburban than actual cowboy. And the lingering sense of unease of CrowHeart has been replaced with a pervasive feeling of dread. An atmosphere that puts a definite chill in the voice of the many narrators, living and reliving a nightmare, uncertain whether they want to return to that deadly place or run fast and far to reclaim what is left of their lives after one horrific incident.
Each character, artfully drawn through Gist’s subtle clues of dialogue and action, seems to be unable to break the grip one of their “friends” holds over them, long after they have gone their supposedly separate ways. Jubal Siner — maybe-messiah, criminal, Svengali, and seriously disturbed individual — attracts them like magnets, even as some try to break away. Jubal is a frightening character. He walks through the novel like a wildfire out of control, wreaking havoc and leaving damaged people in his wake. Whatever the fascination his friends feel for him, it is immediately obvious that everyone would have been better off never knowing him, or if that terrible tragedy had ended differently. The world, even if only their world, would be better off without Jubal Siner.
Why is Ramona unable to put Jubal and everything he stands for behind her and move on to a better life? Obviously, she would be better off sloughing off that part of her past, but she knows their story did not end that one night. Lita, determined to find him and recapture some of the “magic” of her old life, just keeps sinking lower, emotionally barren and self-destructive. Still, she continues her search. Even Lorelei, who believes she escaped the trap that is Jubal Siner, is irrevocably tied to him and the others, no matter the death-grip she maintains on her religion.
Jubal’s destructive influence doesn’t stop with the women who are oddly attracted to him. Nothing will ever be the same for Jesse and Steve. Lives were lost and destroyed in a single night that really went on for weeks. Drugs and alcohol and deadly charisma wound each of the characters in ways that can never be repaired.
The small towns and isolated areas that form a road map of Jubal’s mad wanderings provide the perfect backdrop to this tale of things and lives and dreams gone wrong. Anonymous little bergs that differ from each other only in the names and the terrain are places where people can arrive and flee or remain and dig in; nothing really changes. The wilderness that hides them and seductively offers a permanent escape from reality is the vanishing point that Jubal craves.
As the story and the characters move along there is an inescapable foreboding of doom, of another encounter to shatter what remains of Jubal’s bizzare circle and bring him to the moment he has determined for the climax of his ruinous reign. The danger is impossible to ignore, but equally impossible to look away from.
Lizard Dreaming of Birds is a book like no other you will find on the shelves, because Gist is like no other author. He stands, a true original, in a sub-genre of his very own and where his words hold powerful sway over readers’ minds. Try to think of another writer you can say that about. Just try.