Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Robert Chalmers, "Fortune's Bastard" (2004).

The author who chooses to create a reprehensible protagonist, with whom the reader is expected to empathize, sets up a serious challenge for him/herself. That's certainly the case with Robert Chalmers, whose character "Ed Miller" in Fortune's Bastard is extremely difficult to care about. He's racist, reactionary, close-minded, homophobic, greedy, imperious and arrogant. By his own reckoning he is unable to truly connect with anyone... including his eight-year old daughter. I found myself desiring his downfall from the very beginning. Chalmers satisfied that longing, almost to a fault.

Miller tempts fate by snubbing a disabled homeless person in the beginning of the book. He shrugs off the minor curse that he receives in return. But that curse is fulfilled in spades. His marriage, his career as an executive editor of a rightwing news-rag, his house, and his accounts are quickly lost in a devastating run of manifest karma. He is in so over his head that he must actually flee the country. Thus begins a long process of character transformation. Miller is forced to confront many situations that plague ordinary humanity. For the first time in his life he has to deal with abject poverty, overt resentment, powerlessness and loneliness. And he's got a long learning curve. He quickly finds himself in trouble and is forced to move on again.

It is when Miller arrives in Florida that the full force of fate thrashes him full in the face. It's almost fatal. He finds himself stranded in a retired carny compound surrounded by a dwarf, an albino, a lizard-skinned woman, and other assorted freaks. This cavalcade of oddity is presided over by Vincent, "The Half-Man"- a sadistic tyrant obviously loosely based on "Lobster Boy", Grady Stiles, Jr. I also detect a hint of Arturo "The Fish Boy" from Katherine Dunn's carny fiction masterpiece, Geek Love (1989). But this is by far the most nightmarish carnival-related setting in pop culture. There is very little love flowing around the camp. It is in this location that Ed Miller will finally locate his long lost humanity.

Chalmers book takes the reader through several worlds, each of which could easily stand alone as the setting for a full, fleshed-out novel. The characters and their interactions are framed by radically different perspectives in each section of the book. While this approach demonstrates an impressive range, it can also give the impression of incongruity- as if this work was cobbled together from several short stories. But at the same time, these parts work to illuminate several hidden dimensions of Miller's superficially repugnant personality. Which means by the end... we are finally willing to admit that he has suffered enough. There is genuine redemption at the book's conclusion. And while happy endings are often cliche and mundane, in the case of Fortune's Bastard, its resolution almost comes as a relief.

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