Monday, February 28, 2011

IHSCV Book Club: Love and Monsters in John Boston's Naked Came the Sasquatch

Welcome to the second meeting of the I Heart SCV Book Club. I’d offer you a seat, but it seems you’ve already found one.

Naked Came the Sasquatch: I liked it. As promised, John Boston’s novel is a love story shaped by reincarnation, the author’s life, and monsters—in that order. But let’s take these in reverse to save the most interesting discussion for last. The whole book is up for discussion, so if you don’t want to learn the ending, go no further.

Monsters and Maniacs: Recap

A number of curious events befall the small, Sierra town of Basin Valley at once. Mike Fenberg, editor of The Basin Valley Bugle, loses a reporter when an Indian shoots him at his desk—“Red didn’t particularly care for reporters.” His replacement is one Elaine Mitikitski, a lovely young divorcee (three times over), with whom Mike shares an immediate, inexplicable chemistry. He has been faithfully mourning his dead wife and child, but Elaine awakens fresh hope in Fenberg. Enter M. J. Behan, a self-made millionaire and falsely pious evangelical type. He has relocated his family to Basin Valley for the fresh mountain air and small town values. Though he professes wanting relax, Behan seems hell-bent on driving The Bugle out of business by publishing his own paper. Mike and he share an almost immediate, inexplicable distrust that runs deeper than their competing publications. Mitikitski and Behan aren’t the only newcomers in town. Several residents report seeing a large monster (“maniac”) prowling around at night. And, finally, there is a series of vicious murders in which the victims have been torn apart, partially eaten, and sloppily buried. No one knows who to blame. That’s the basic premise.

The slaughter of Behan’s daughter by the as-yet-unknown murderer is a flashpoint. John Tuberski, Mike Fenberg’s brother, becomes the prime suspect. Though generally peaceable, the eccentric Tuberski is capable of whupping whole motorcycle gangs and bending steel with his bare hands—at least when he’s not tending houseplants or offering spiritual advice to Native Americans. Since he fled the murder scene and has the size and strength to kill, he’s a wanted man. Yet the murders continue, and it becomes apparent that it is something, not someone, behind them.

One night, Mike is with Elaine. Their relationship has blossomed and she is trying to tell him that she is pregnant, but she leaves when he’s too dense to catch her hints. Moments later, the fugitive Tuberski returns after months spent hiding in the woods. He arrives with an enormous Sasquatch in tow. Tuberski insists that the monster it is far too gentle to have been responsible for the grisly murders around town. When law enforcement arrives, Fenberg, Tuberski and the Bigfoot make for an escape but only the beast eludes law enforcement, kidnapping Elaine Mitikitski on the retreat to its forest home.

After a brief stint in jail, Fenberg and Tuberski hurry to search for Elaine and the Sasquatch that grabbed her. They scour the woods around the mountainous lair of the creature. Meanwhile, Behan is also feverishly searching for Elaine. Why is he so desperate to find her, we wonder? It’s because Behan is a werewolf whose destiny is to sire Elaine’s child and turn her into one of his own kind, naturally—well, supernaturally. Indeed, it’s Behan in his werewolf form that has been terrorizing Basin Valley and devouring defenseless residents, not Tuberski or the Sasquatch. And it turns out that Mike and Elaine are reincarnated persons, both of whom were killed by Behan in a former life. He’s got a lot of blood on his paws.

There is a mad dash for Elaine ending in a cataclysmic confrontation between Fenberg and Behan on a mountain peak. The fateful night ends well, for the most part, Mike saving Elaine and the Bigfoot being cleared of wrong-doing. And more important than defeating a human-devouring werewolf, Mike comes to terms with moving forward in his own life.

The Author: Boston Manifest

Despite a werewolf and Sasquatch, the story may seem a little formulaic: gather a gang of oddballs and slowly reveal the ties that bind them, the grand plan by which they’re united. But the story is considerably better than that. Though “out there,” the characters are satisfyingly developed and they aren’t all wacky for wackiness’ sake. Boston seems to have used his own life as inspiration. A home called Scared O’Bears Ranch, a love affair with journalism, a legal name change, and a string of unsuccessful marriages are divided amongst the main characters so that each is a bit Bostonian[1]. He devotes at least one chapter to fleshing each of them out with colorful, often sympathetic prose. This care and Boston’s clever tweaks on traditional plot elements make for a compelling, cliché-defying read.

The central role of the small-town newspaper also relies heavily, we presume, on Boston’s writing career and his long, tumultuous history with The Signal. His depiction hearkens back to the good ol’ days of journalism when reporters actually investigated stories and put out snappy, stylish copy. Also recognizable to Claritan readers are a mobile home park that floods every year, the Alliklik tribe[2], and character types like Norman the Mormon (who’s not exactly a model saint). Santa Clarita's small town days are behind her, but this may offer a bit of a glimpse back.

Boston’s jokes are another familiar presence for readers who know his columns. The thing he does so, so well is infusing humor even under the darkest and most bizarre of circumstances. Take Mike, the widower whose primary fault is an inability to let go. He is devoted to stoically mourning his deceased wife and son. They died in a car accident five years prior, and he keeps a photo of them as a cherished reminder. Elaine Mitikitski realizes she’s vying for Mike’s attention with a dead woman (as yet unreincarnated, so far as we know) and takes her own version of the photo—blonde wig, baby doll in her arms and all. It sounds horrifying, but it comes off as almost sweet and affectionate in the book. In another scene, Elaine is about to be raped by a werewolf in the middle of the forest but manages a steady stream of one liners. “I don’t eat people…not even for special occasions” she replies to Behan’s offer of dining on Bubba, the Sheriff.

Some of the humor falls flat. For example, Boston twice jokes about money not growing on the abundant trees of Basin Valley. Roy Rivenburg interpreted such inadvertent repetitions as a sign of “exhaustion and lack of editing” from the prolific Boston[3]. There is so much fresh, original, and hilarious, though, that a very few rough patches (and perhaps some pacing issues near the end) seems a small price to pay.

Despite appearances, I don’t like putting too much emphasis on authorial considerations. Still, there’s one last germane question: intent. Boston is quick to poke fun at the genres he borrows from. He often defies the reader’s expectations, as with his string of unconventional love scenes or his decision to realize Bigfoot not as a rugged, fearsome creature but a rather tame being suffering unrequited inter-species love and carrying a few extra pounds. Furthermore, Boston is a satirist who entitled his novel after Naked Came the Stranger, a book written as a stunt/critique in the 1970s. So there’s that most basic question of whether it’s all a put-on, the whole book being some kind of critical caricature. Personally, I think Boston’s ultimate goal is creation, not critique. There is vulnerability in writing so much that is sentimental and blushingly autobiographical, and you sense that he has a deep affection for his characters, one the reader will likely share.

Reincarnation: Variations on a Theme

The crux of this story is reincarnation, a fact that is readily apparent. Within the first chapter, there is a legend of the Mandrango (Indian version of the werewolf) arising again and again. Norton Fenberg realizes a rebirth of sorts when he changes his name to John Tuberski, and there is an overt mention of his belief in reincarnation. Indeed, the concept appears everywhere, as in a touching scene where the littlest Fenberg brother holds his breath until he passes out and worries he has died and returned as a different boy. Though an unconventional topic, Boston’s treatment of reincarnation is one of the places where he uses conventional narrative devices. Elaine’s past and future appear in dreams, and there is unexplained uneasiness around certain people that makes sense, suddenly, when these characters are revealed as reincarnated enemies.

The novel’s mythology is explained in Tuberski’s philosophical musings. “…People could come back as soft little babies. It gave them a chance to be loved and held. It allowed them time to rest up from the previous life’s heartbreak before they went at it all over again. It was a comforting private thought to Fenberg.” It’s the cherished second chance.

Eventually, we discover that things ended poorly the last go-round. Behan reminds Elaine, “It was up here, a century ago. […] Your husband Michael left you. Alone. Of course, that wasn’t his name then. It was all so perfect, except you were carrying his child, and I had to kill you for your infidelity and wait. Wait another hundred years.” This begs the question of why outcomes should differ when the players and intentions are the same. In the confrontation found in this book, it’s Michael and Elaine who prevail, not Behan. The change in outcome certainly doesn’t seem to stem from having learned anything in past lifetimes. Rather discouragingly, the same mistakes are repeated. Rather, Fenberg succeeds where once he failed because he has new allies—Tuberski and Sasquatch—and because of a little cosmic chaos in the form of Red Dog Rasmussen’s deus ex machina-tions. Like Tuberski’s business ventures and Elaine’s marriages, all the characters fail and fail again until that critical piece finally clicks into place.

Since this is a Claritan book club, it’s appropriate to close the discussion of reincarnation with an image that evokes how Clarita Valley—I mean Basin Valley—goes through the same motions again and again:
The Bugle ran a balanced menu of stories about sports, society highlights, traffic accidents, murders, births and weddings, maniacs (when they were available), fires, politics, and an interchangeable tired old photo of the captains of local industry shaking hands and grinning inanely while hunched over some new ground-breaking ceremony celebrating the cementing of some portion of Basin Valley which had not previously been cemented, […] blurbs on who looked nice at the prom, updates on recent heart attacks, baby and puppy pictures, and the annual feature on how the senior citizen mobile home park had once again been demolished by flash flood (the park was built in the wash.)”

How reassuring.

The Santa Clarita Valley bears more than a passing resemblance to Basin Valley. (A ground-breaking from 1998 and one of the more recent floods through Polynesian Mobile Home Park; see above quotation.)

Place in the Claritan Library & Final Words

Boston should have his own shelf where Naked Came the Sasquatch sits next to binders of clippings from favorite columns, with enough room to house the sequel that may or may not be coming. He kind of reached a bit in setting it up (lecherous vampire hag who leads a Dark Brotherhood focused on collecting the souls of Mitikitski and Tuberski) but I really hope he writes it. As one of the exceedingly few pieces of quality fiction to come from a local author—Mr. SCV himself—the book has a foundational role and warrants detailed explication by students pursuing advanced degrees in Contemporary Claritan Literature.

I have more questions and comments about Hav-a-tampa cigars, long-term relationships with werewolves, Red Dog Rasmussen, the Pynchonesque and vaguely Russian names, the Magonogonovitch brothers, whether children really can run newspapers, prophetic dreams, Roulette Rozinitti’s breasts (“so big, giant herds of bison could thunder across one taking a week to pass”), the younger Fenberg brothers, “Arthur Mantooth, the legendary Indian trombone murderer”, the practical side of reincarnation, and the first bedroom scene involving Mike and Elaine, but we simply can’t get to everything. Suffice it to say I found this to be a very worthwhile book.

Book Club Selection for March

Up next is John Boessenecker’s Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez. Yes, that’s the Vasquez of Vasquez Rocks, the Vasquez who was a womanizing, lawless fugitive that called Santa Clarita home for a short spell. The IHSCV Book Club will discuss the man, the history, and how Santa Clarita influenced him (or vice versa). Read it by March 26.

[1]I've never met him, so all biographical details are drawn from what he reveals in his columns (i.e., a lot). For those curious about his original name, it was Walter Cieplik Jr.
[2]Called the Alliklik by Kroeber and the Tataviam by Harrington, these are the people who inhabited Santa Clarita prior to the Mission Period. Travis Hudson has
much to say about what to call them and their language.
[3]Here's a long, interesting article on Boston that came out shortly following the release of NCTS. It's from the LA Times.


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