Last Things: Unwise Blood

by David Searcy

Published by Scribner

356 pages, 2002





What if Flannery O'Connor and Stephen King had met, married and mated?

Reviewed by David Abrams


Their offspring would probably have resembled something like the novels of David Searcy: dark, tangled and lurking with ominous mysteries of the soul. These are books in which the Holy Spirit could very well be that misshapen Thing lurking beneath the basement stairs. In Searcy's fiction, the violent not only bear it away, they leave a trail of slime in their wake.

Last Things, Searcy's latest novel, begins with a scene which would make King sit up straight and O'Connor nod with recognition.

The simplest sort of horror story (and the most gratifying somehow) starts with the damage -- something ruined in ways too peculiar to explain, glimpsed, say, at high speed along a country highway at dusk just at that rosy half-lit moment before one flips on the headlights: Little jerks of their eyes now to the right -- hers then his, but then it's gone and they fall silent watching the pink light leaving the tops of the pines: he looks back once in the mirror but everything's shadowy against the sky like one of those black and orange silhouette landscapes schoolchildren produce at Halloween -- such an easy effect yet so dramatic with all the particulars of the world hopelessly lost in the radiance.

"Was that a scarecrow?" she says at last.

A scarecrow? Well… yes and no. Searcy never comes out and fully describes the carcasses splayed out on cross-timbers around the countryside, but the woman in the car hurtling down the highway imagines it to be:

something dead, run over and tossed up onto a fence or a bush somehow, not a person but a deer, maybe a dog flattened by the impact like in a cartoon, unfolded, ears out sideways like a hat, all spread out and presented rose-colored in the sunlight in the corner of her eye, a scatter of teeth across its face.

It's just one of several strange sights that have been cropping up near the east Texas town of Gilmer where Luther Hazlitt -- an odd, stoic man who lives by himself in an isolated trailer surrounded by grass, cattle, chickens and puppies -- is trying to sort out all the premonitions of things to come. A little girl vanishes, leaving behind "little bits of hair like in a barbershop"; a chicken's skeleton -- every bone intact -- appears in a mailbox; "luminous green thunderstorms" boil on the horizon; and the county sheriff has just caught a monstrous fish which he promptly puts on display in the freezer down at Joe's Big Juicy Hamburgers. Like O'Connor's mummy in Wise Blood, the giant fish becomes an object of worship. It's not long before people are on their knees in prayer in front of Joe's Big Juicy freezer. Wise Blood's Hazel Motes and Enoch Emery in his gorilla suit are just around the corner.

And, given exquisitely gruesome passages like this, Stephen King is at the front door:

He [Luther] saw a rabbit once -- a cottontail -- get run over; a truck just ran right over the top of it, the rabbit rolled a little ways and Luther walked over to where it was -- pretty much undamaged except it was dead and lying near it in the road was the rabbit's heart, itself undamaged, beating away as if the rabbit and its life were separate things that might get along without each other; and for a moment you could see that. How the heart didn't even know about the rabbit. It might be beating for a possum or a squirrel for all it knew or, as in this case, for nothing at all. You had this rabbit, then over here you had its heart and in between there was this distance, absolutely nothing.

Unfortunately, that same distance between heart and body is a problem that plagues the book itself. Searcy has created a fine, odd world and peopled it with equally odd characters (Luther, for instance, is literally trying to trap the Holy Spirit), but the overbloat of sentences fat with big words and languorous phrasing puts a dull edge on whatever suspense he manages to create. The menace is too indistinct, the violence too subtextual to raise anything but the most modest of goosebumps.

High-brow horror is a tricky thing to pull off -- Peter Straub has managed to do it a couple of times. Most readers who come to the genre want the blood to flow, not seep. Searcy has all the right ingredients for what should make our veins run cold, but his extravagance of elegant language keeps our hearts beating on the side of the road, far from the body of the book.

It's a strange hybrid of a novel, unsure whether it wants to scare the hell out of us with those Children of the Corn-like scarecrows or scare the hell into us by turning the whole thing into a religious parable. Searcy reaches hard for O'Connor (including a tip of the hat in naming his character: Hazel Motes, Luther Hazlitt), but Last Things just doesn't have the same propulsion of language which made Flannery's writing so superb (there's no Jesus moving from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around no Church of Christ Without Christ, no prophet in a "glare-blue suit"). The writing in Last Things is too often redundant and purposefully obscure. Charitably, I'd have to say, sentence for sentence, it's the most boring book I've read this year.

And "boring" is not something it should be -- not when there are gutted-carcass scarecrows and miraculous monster fish in the freezer -- not to mention the Holy Spirit trapped in a cage. There is promise here, but very little delivery. As he writes near the end of the book, the truth is out there somewhere in the grass and coming closer, softly jingling like some change in someone's pocket. I only wish there'd been a few more coins and Searcy walked a little faster. | December 2002


David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.