by Clay McLeod Chapman
Published by Theia Books
230 pages, 2003
A Heartwarming Story of Rot, Death and Decay
Reviewed by David Abrams
Open Clay McLeod Chapman's debut novel Miss Corpus carefully, lest the stench of rot waft out too quickly.
The pages of this book are clotted with corpses: bloated limbs swell and split, a decomposed jaw falls into a decayed lap, road-killed possums are scraped off the asphalt ("their spines holding a head of red petals -- brains blooming out from their split skulls"). And yet, Miss Corpus is poignant, even life-affirming. Chapman's earlier collection of short stories, Rest Area, featured a grimy tour of his imagination with sodomy, cannibalism and mutilation on the program. In those 20 vignettes and monologues, Chapman's language and imagery were verbal arrows flying off the page, piercing the reader's eyes.
Miss Corpus is no less squalid, but the author's rapid-fire poetry-slam approach to narrative has gentled somewhat as he takes his foot off the accelerator and slows down to gape at grief.
The novel is really two separate road stories, one traveling south from Virginia, the other northbound from Florida. Two strangers, William Colby and Philip Winters, get in their cars and hit the highway in a therapeutic effort to assuage their sorrow.
Colby, a young crewman in the merchant marines, comes home on shore leave to find the body of his young bride decaying on his kitchen floor. Shelly had been planning an interstate trip for their delayed honeymoon, maps strewn all over the kitchen, when she slipped and cracked her head on the tile floor, lying there for weeks until her husband discovered her. (Miss Corpus is not a book for the faint-of-stomach.)
She was on the kitchen floor -- her chin resting inside the peak of her sternum, her head overflowing from that tiny bowl of bone. Her clavicles extended upward like bird wings stripped of their feathers, the outspread bones tethered down by her own flesh. Her head was perched over top of that mangled nest of her own body, birdlike -- the accident twisting her limbs into a contortionist's roost.
Colby refuses to let a little thing like death stop them from taking that honeymoon. Key goes into the ignition.
When we meet Winters two-thirds of the way through the book, he's mourning the loss of his teenage son who disappeared one night five years earlier in a van full of other teens from their suburban neighborhood. He gets a late-night phone call telling him the van has been found at the bottom of a swamp 30 miles away. The anguished father refuses to let the memory of his son die as he rushes to the accident site. Nothing's going to stop them from taking that road trip they'd once planned. Key goes into the ignition.
Colby and Winters eventually intersect in the novel's final pages and by that point, they (and the reader) have traveled miles and pages full of shock, longing, hallucinations, mangled body parts and the jabbering voices of those they meet along the way at toll booths, fruit stands and roadside motels. This is a book about the agony of having to let go, to accept the fact that our dead loved ones are never walking through the front door again. Chapman is at his best when he details the way we mourn:
I thought of how I could hold on to [Shelly's] voice. I could take all the objects in our house that her intonation had entered. The mouthpiece to the telephone could have the residue of all her conversations crusted inside. If I twisted it off the receiver, maybe I'd find a film of phone calls still coating the inner rim. I could take her toothbrush, searching for those muffled bits of talk caught within the bristles.
Not everything Chapman attempts succeeds as well as this. A group therapy session for grieving parents is too long and tritely didactic, for one thing; the stream-of-consciousness narration sometimes meanders too far off course, for another.
It's a strange trip -- part David Lynch, part Jack Kerouac -- but at every stop along the way Chapman examines death with a childlike curiosity, bordering on adoration. He's not afraid to stick his fingers into viscera and, lifting it to his face, examine it, smell it, taste the many flavors of sorrow and loss. He finds that in the deepest, darkest hours of our bereavement, we are comforted by memories of the good times with the dearly departed, images which come flooding back to us, cruelly and sweetly. | February 2003
David Abrams has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.