Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno

Marvel and a Wonder 9781617753947_1b350After falling in love with earlier Meno novels Hairstyles of The Damned and The Great Perhaps, some readers found Meno’s last novel Office Girl lacking. It was a quick, fun read, but where was the magical realism? Where were the delightfully strange characters who seemed at once familiar and like nobody you’ve ever met? When I heard his new novel would take a completely different direction, I grew excited. I had high hopes for Marvel and A Wonder, but it’s not the novel I was hoping for–it’s better.

The first few pages alone show that this book is slower, more meditative, and more poetic than anything Meno has written so far. The dreamy turns of phrase that make How The Hula Girl Sings and The Great Perhaps shine on a sentence-by-sentence level are here, but Meno often applies them to things we see yet seldom look at closely. Many passages will make you wish you could see the world with Meno’s eyes, eyes that notice the way a chicken looks when it’s angry and note the spent promise of an old bottle rocket in a gutter. Set largely in rural Indiana, lonely highways, and the wrong parts of towns, the places the novel takes us are suffused with ugliness. In the dark corners of this world, Meno finds light and beauty to suddenly thrust before readers. Added to the way he toys with pacing and alternates viewpoints, this makes readers feel just like the characters do when a stunning white horse appears in a crusty Winn-Dixie parking lot outside of Nashville.

Many of those characters are remarkable, but not in the same way as the grandfather from The Great Perhaps or Frances from Demons in the Spring. Instead of surreal yet believable characters whose actions are heightened with whimsy, these characters are too real. Their true-life analogs filter in and out of places you’ve been–the kind of people who, when they enter the pizza parlor or liquor store, make you squirm in your seat and avoid eye contact or rush through your transaction, pretending you didn’t see them. Yes, these are “drop the beer and leave” characters.

Populating the world of this novel with such dark people means that those characters who are sweet or kind, or whose arc allows them to change, stand out all the more. Meno’s skillful interplay of light and shadow propels the plot through what could be, in another writer’s hands, dozens of pages of monotonous driving, and it keeps the book on the palatable side of the Western Noir genre for readers who can’t stomach Cormac McCarthy.

To dismiss it as just genre writing, however, is a great mistake. Not only is it too beautiful for that, it is also gloriously woven through with loose ends, unanswered questions, and ambiguity. Did the good guy win? Win what? Does anyone ride off into the sunset? And if so, is it with one eye, a broken leg, and internal bleeding in a car stolen from who knows where? Is that any reward when only misery awaits him after moonrise? There’s a passage a bit less than a third of the way through the book detailing an incident that occurs at a state-run rest stop that may be some of the best writing about religion in America (and it’s not even in a book about religion!). Apply it as an answer to any of those questions, and you’ll understand immediately why it is indeed a marvel and a wonder that Meno wrote not  The Great Perhaps II but a noirish, grimy western that will give you actual nightmares.

Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno (Akashic Books | 9781617753947 | September 1, 2015)

Betty Scott

Erstwhile bookseller Betty Scott lives in the Chicago area and has a serious cinema habit. When not reading or watching movies, she writes reviews, poetry, and fiction.