- Arkansan Odysseus
Raw Dog Screaming Press
214 Pages; Print, $14.95
Readers familiar with Michael Gills' body of work and the chronicles of Joey Harvell know that he leads a tough life and struggles mightily to do the right thing with the hand that life deals him. His family has faced violence for generations—inflicted on them and by them. When a stranger insults Joey at the Stepwell family cemetery, Joey thinks, once I would have done harm to this man; his mother's brother, Earl, would have "pulled a pistol from his boot and shot the son of a bitch in the head." Though in this incident Joey remains calm, Arkansas and "the summer of death" doesn't bode well for him and his family. But as Joey says—we are survivors.
Emergency Instructions is the first volume in the Go Love quartet; it presents the Harvells in a time prior to Go Love (2011) when they are grieving the death of Joey's mother. In Emergency Instructions, Joey is coming back to the land of his birth, and he feels triumphant; he's on the verge of becoming the man he wants, hopes, to be. We meet Joey driving from Salt Lake City with his family's belongings crammed in his truck and a vacuum cleaner hanging out the window. When Joey reaches his home stretch he cruises down Highway 71 and recounts to himself bits of his and his family's history and the story of how he met and fell in love with Renee. He exits the highway at Carrion Crow Mountain: read this as an omen.
Michael Gills deftly weaves three narrative tracks, Joey's, his wife, Renee's, and a third character, Edgar T. Paris's, into a path that merges at the novel's end. Joey has just taken a job as a professor at Arkansas Tech; his focus area is Mormon conflicts with Arkansans. To the outside world this sounds a bit narrow and maybe specious as well. But where the Harvells have landed history is not forgotten; the massacre of Arkansas travelers trying to cross the Utah territory in a wagon train is still something to be avenged. For Joey, the subject's personal too. His ancestors were among the slaughtered, and while living in Utah he saw their "bleached skulls displayed in plain sight at Brigham Young University."
Compared to Gills' other work, Emergency Instructions may be more Renee's story than Joey's. She struggles to make sense of the life she finds herself living after Joey brings his family home (for him) to Arkansas. Renee Harvell is not coming home. When she finds herself living among serial killers, snake handlers, backwoods witchcraft, and those who believe with fervor that they are about to meet their God, she wonders why in the hell she let Joey bring her and her daughter back here.
Besides her dismay at Arkansas culture, or the lack of it, Renee thinks she's dying of cancer.
She's more than on edge. Her first night in her new hometown, she stays at a motel with a dry swimming pool and an emergency instruction manual on what to do when the local nuclear reactor melts down. What ensues after the Harvells come home is as bizarre as anything in an Flannery O'Connor novel.
Edgar T. Paris, the third main character in the novel, is a caretaker. He digs graves for the newly dead, cooks, cleans, and maintains the Tri-County Coon Club. When Joey's invited to the Tri-County Coon Club to lecture on his specialty—this area's fevered longing for revenge, a man whose daughter has just been murdered by the local serial killer bites Joey's index finger off and then escapes into the bayou.
Underlying this story of the Harvells' life is, as always in Gills work, the family history of the Stepwells. Joey Harvell often tells this history. He imagines ancestors rising from their graves and calling him to join them when he thinks the nuclear plant has melted down. When he thinks of his lecture...