|Image from www.angryrobotbooks.com|
Eric Scott Fischl
Angry Robot/ Tor, 3/5 October 2017
PB, e 400pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.
We have something very new and strange here, I think.
While The Trials of Solomon Parker shares something with Fiscal's previous book, Dr Potter's Medicine Show - a Western setting, magic - there are also clear difference. This is a very political book, taking in, as it does, nascent Union organisation in the deadly mines of Butte, Montana ("Butte brings to mind nothing more than a rotting carcass, the hill burrowed out underneath, hollowed like a dead thing swarmed with carrion beetles, the stink of decay rising up"), the position of Native Americans, and collusion between organised crime and the company bosses.
There's also religion and philosophy.
It's a dizzying mix.
David Solomon Parker, the titular character, is at the centre of the vortex. A miner when we meet him, he has a troubled past with a marriage gone tragically wrong. His wife Elizabeth - who we see first, her story opens the book - suffers from what I think would now be called post-natal depression, and this leads to terrible events. Years later, Parker is underground, emerging only to sleep, drink and gamble away his pay. It's almost as though he is hiding from daylight.
There is - as the quote at the front hints - more than an element of the trials of Job here. Job, that upright man whom the Almighty and Satan toy with to see if he'll break. The man who loses everything, through no fault of his own. This theme - of divinities playing with mortals' lives - plays out through the book, the powers - the Above Ones - being vaguely identified as Native American gods, mediated with by an old sorcerer. He has plans for Sol, but also for Sol's best friend, "Billy", a Native man who was taken into a Government school that made him a "brown-skinned White man".
Perhaps the idea is that Billy will recover his heritage? It's not actually very clear. Wreathed about with myths and legends of the brothers Maatakssi and Siinatssi, a sort of Cain and Abel, and their dealings with the Above Ones, the story takes a kind of quantum jump to follow different alternatives. Again and again Solomon is presented with an opportunity to mend what's been broken, but that means overcoming his own failings - his drinking, his gambling - and also finding a way to live a moral life in the boomtown of Butte.
There are, it seems, many ways to live immorally in Butte...
Reminding me somewhat of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, this story holds together the perspectives of the struggling miners - an important side plot is their attempt to improve safety standards in the mines - the crime boss and, of course, the Native Americans - two brothers and nephew/ son. Almost daunting in depictions of suffering and cruelty, it's nevertheless clear that these are not, quite, the point. Rather the book is - I think - a challenge to the idea of a happy ending, of achieving one state that resolves everyone's problems. Time and time again characters aim for such a state - Billy, in working at the mental hospital, doing what good he can, Sol, over and over again, even the union organiser Frank Little ("Thought it would be different, this time") - and of course Maatakssi and Siinatssi in the recounted legends. It's all about dicing with the gods, winning over them or cheating them, extracting a favour, a promise, a blessing.
It never quite seems to work, though. The House never loses. There are always loose ends which trip everyone up. Billy loses his friend. Sol encounters, or causes, tragedy after tragedy. Little himself is led to a lonely Calvary (he's a real person, it did happen). And in the myths, Maatakssi's attempt to redeem his tribe leads, in the end, to a catastrophe for them.
That leaves in doubt the outcome to the dramatic finale of the book - one wants to believe there has been some eucatastrophe, some healing, that things have finally gone right: but the real setting of the book in a specific time and place suggests it hasn't, at least not for Billy and his kin.
It's a visceral book, filled with the sights and sounds and, above all, smells of the squalid boomtown. Especially the smells. Everywhere there is smoke. Smoke drifting over from Idaho making Elizabeth's laundry stink even when it's washed. Smoke drifting through the mines, warning of ruinous fire. Sulphurous smoke from the works blanketing Butte. Smoke from cheap tobacco in the taverns and dives, smoke from expensive cigars in the crime boss's lair. Smoke from the sorcerer's fire, smoke from the burning house. Fischl makes it all very, very real, even as he's playing games with consequences, keeping us guessing about who is alive and who's dead. The book is a dream to read, and worth reading slowly, taking in the nuances and spotting the recurring themes: a prizefight, a scene replayed from a different perspective, an outcome the same, despite a changed starting point.
To summarise: I'd strongly recommend this book. It's deeper, darker and scarier than Dr Potter's Medicine Show - which was already deep, dark and scary.