Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Review: The Madman's Tale by John Katzenbach

After capitulating to the muse enough to keep her happy (I did some high level prep work on character: yes, threw the muse a bone), I found myself gazing lustily at the dwindling TBR pile. (Actually, baskets. Two.) I’d set aside some of the original August list, and shuffled others, and in doing so bared some of the planned Autumn reading. At the top was The Madman’s Tale by John Katzenbach.

The haunting title and eerie out of focus cover kept talking to me, begging me to burrow into the depths of this 568pg read and lose myself to the sublime pleasures that awaited. Eventually, I could no longer resist. I’ll just read a few pages, I told myself. I started at the beginning, a sound and safe place to launch. “I can no longer hear my voices, so I am a little lost. My suspicion is they would know far better how to tell this story…”

Power. Raw. Intense. And, yet, subtle, artful and coy. All at once, rolled together, like the tiles in a kaleidoscope, focused not on the light of a bright summer sun, but on the mutable glow of an uncertain moon. This is the Madman’s Tale. All the summer reading so far, blown away by this one read. Stellar. There is no other way to describe it, really. Stellar. The story is so rich, so complex, I’m not even sure how to review it, or that I can adequately capture it’s essence. But I’ll take the risk, because it’s such a wonderful tale, and deserving of praise.

The hero is a young schizophrenic male. The book alternates between past and present. Present is narrated by the hero in first person, guessing nearing mid life. Past is third person, most often through his pov (age 21), but occasionally bringing in other key characters. Almost all action takes place inside the locked ward of a mental institution. Frances is a man lost to his world and the world around him, struggling, like anyone else, to make sense of life and his place in life. He is befriended inside by Peter (another patient who is rational but for one act of madness), two oderlies, and soon, a prosecuting attorney. You see, a murder takes place inside the walls of the hospital. And the attorney enlists the aide of Francis (a.k.a. C Bird), and Peter, to help her investigate. She believes the murder part of a string, and thinks the killer is someone in the hospital. Present day story involves Frances remembering the truths learned, and past involves learning truths. More than truths about murder, but truths about life, the self, others, madness, friendship, heroism, and evil. Pure, dark, unrepentant evil.

I made Tim laugh. After several hours he came out of the office and said “How’s the book?”. I was kind of speechless, then I rallied. “There are so many words! And each one is so intense. This is awesome!”

The unique perspective gives this story a depth and newness rarely experienced in thrillers and suspense today. It is fresh, and dark, uplifiting, and disheartening. There are passages, sentences, so profound, I read them multiple times. At one point, I had to set the book aside and just think, soak it all in. Here is a clip, the one that made me call a hard stop. Judge for yourself the intensity and power:

“He and I both knew that I was far more vulnerable in the silent midnight hours. Night brings doubt. Darkness sows fears. I expected him to return as soon as the sun fled. There’s no pill as yet invented that can alleviate the symptoms of loneliness and isolation that the end of the day brings. But in the meantime, I was safe, or at least as safe as I could reasonably expect. No matter how many locks and bolts I had on my door, they wouldn’t keep out my worst fears. This observation made me laugh out loud.” (Excerpt: TMT, J.K., 2004)

Darkness sows fears…no pill as yet invented that can alleviate the symptoms of loneliness and isolation that the end of the day brings...No matter how many locks and bolts I had on my door, they wouldn't keep out my worst fears..." This is very potent writing. The entire story defies my ability to even glimpse the girders, a stray tool mark, any signs of the work of craft that brought it to the world. It seems wholly organic, as though it came to life one night and was scribbled into being with no artiface or contrivance. Testimony to the author’s skill, and if you read it, and remember my observation, you’ll see the book’s impact still at work in my subtext and my thoughts.

Read The Madman’s Tale. You will not be the same when you’re done. Mr. Katzenbach is a master storyteller. And lucky me, he has a healthy backlist, and another book on the way.

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