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Originally from Vermont, I now live in North Carolina. My work can be found in recent issues of REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Jabberwock Review, The Emerson Review, Storyglossia, The MacGuffin, Confrontation, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, wigleaf, Pank, and Gargoyle #57, among others. One of my stories has been translated into Farsi by Asadollah Amraee, and many others by Jalil Jafari, two of which have been published in the Iranian journal, Golestaneh Magazine. Currently, I'm an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine. I'm also working on two novels and a short story collection. In 2011, I was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Mover of Bones by Robert Vivian



Once in a while you come across a book that invites the reader to fully engage, that keeps the reader on edge, trying to figure out both the surface meaning, and the deeper metaphorical meaning hidden in the text. "The Mover of Bones" by Robert Vivian, published by University of Nebraska Press, is such a book.

The book opens with the scene of a drunken janitor in the cellar of a church. He's there to dig up the bones of a murdered child. The scene is riveting and eerie with its abandoned religious statues looking on as Jesse Breedlove works frantically to free the hair of the girl that has continued to grow beneath the ground. We don't know if Jesse has killed her, or if he has merely witnessed her killing, but he knows she's there, and that knowledge has undone him.

Vivian has given us eighteen characters, eighteen distinct voices, through which we follow the path of Jesse Breedlove as he carries the bones of the girl across America. Each character is at a point of despair in his own life or is strangely touched by the sight of the pair: A truck driver is forever changed when he bears witness to both the dead girl's singing bones in the back of an abandoned vehicle and Jesse, a cross burned onto his chest, emerging from the woods; A disenchanted sixteen-year-old walks away from her birthday party and even after seeing the horrifying image of Jesse and the mutilated girl, she insists she wouldn't have traded the experience; a gas station owner uses heroin to ease the pain of his missing feet and wishes the man he sees carrying the bones of the girl could bring his feet back to him; an infantile man hoards the bones of a dog and hopes to use them to scare away the men who come to have sex with his mother; a repentant womanizer holes up in a hotel while he waits for death to take him, and while there sees Jesse in the room next door; a formerly abused woman sees Jesse and the girl in the woods playing with her missing son and becomes determined, after that precise moment, to conquer her fear of her ex-husband. These are just a few of the people who are touched in some way by the sighting of this haunting pair.

Throughout the book, readers can ponder the significance of Jesse: did he really kill the girl? Who is he? Is he the soul of America? Is he the second coming? Is he the devil? Or is he simply the embodiment of human regret and anguish? My bet's on the latter, though it's still anyone's guess. And that's part of the beauty of the novel. Another is the drop-to-your-knees poetic prose. Lines such as these:

From Earl Dodson, the reporter following Jesse and the girl across the country:

"My words no longer are, if they ever were, ethereal fairies I summon to feel smug about my talent, but tiny and blind earthworms moving the earth one precious square inch of soil or shit at a time."

From Nathan Webb, an anti-abortion activist:

"I would not kill the doctors who kill the babies, only ask them to eat their dinners at night bathed in the blood of their innocent victims. I would ask them to shower in that same blood and take a bath in the afterbirth that never was, just mucous and dead baby brains of those who wanted a chance to think on the glory of God."

From Little Woodpile, the man who sets fire to his mother's couch:

"The crows are in the trees like the small dark marks you see in books."

and this from Ed Jakowski who's wife has left him to care for his severely handicapped daughter alone:

"We communicate through touches, like two balloons bumping into each other in a quiet room where nobody goes."

There are many disturbing images in "The Mover of Bones." Vivian doesn't shy away from death, or ugliness, or cruelty. But there are many beautiful images as well, and then there are the inexplicable mysteries. It seems to me this book contains every gorgeous, awe-inspiring, horrific thing life has to offer.

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