Two young novelists offer compelling portraits of serial murderersone skin-crawlingly odd, the other surprisingly sympathetic.
AS THOUGH THEY WERE VYING to be the poster children of Texas summer fiction, serial killers are front and center in a pair of smartly rendered novels from Lubbock’s Stephen Graham Jones and Austinite Amanda Eyre Ward. Equally moving in different ways, Jones’s wild-eyed thriller and Ward’s tale of grief and forgiveness occupy entirely opposite ends of the literary spectrum.
Stephen Graham Jones never intended to go to college. “I only took the SAT exam so I could give this girl a ride,” he says. “She had potential. I had a truck.” And if he hadn’t wrenched his back moving one of those big double-door refrigerators, he might still be the only Ph.D. hauling appliances at the Sears warehouse in Lubbock’s South Plains Mall. The forced layoff led him to pursue a teaching gig at Texas Tech University, and now the 31-year-old assistant professor of English has published his second novel, All the Beautiful Sinners (Rugged Land). A hard-edged, cerebral spine-tingler, it is a portrait of a serial kidnapper-killer with a seventeen-year record stretching from the East Coast to Texas and Oklahoma. The question at hand: How could one man escape capture for so long?
Two manhunts provide the action at the heart of Sinners. Deputy sheriff Jim Doe—like the author, a Blackfeet Indian—has embarked on an interstate pursuit of the long-haired Indian man who killed his boss, Sheriff Tom Gentry, in a routine traffic stop in their little town of Nazareth, Texas. A dashboard video camera in the sheriff’s cruiser captured the shooting as well as two small bodies in the open trunk of the killer’s car. As Doe’s chase continues, he keeps running across stories—are they connected to his quarry?—about pairs of Native American children who disappeared in the aftermath of tornadoes. Farther east, at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Cody Mingus, Sheila Watts, and Tim Creed puzzle over a database analysis that reveals that pairs of corpses, their limbs mutilated so as to be child-size, have been discovered along the Atlantic seaboard over an eight-year period. Because they were found outside towns with biblical names like Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Jericho, reports of a psycho killer in Nazareth with two small bodies in his trunk send the agents off to find Jim Doe before you can say “Westward, ho.”
A crazed energy courses through the novel, but Jones’s prose is graphic and eloquent. Here’s how he describes a nascent tornado: “This time when the storm came it was silent, and Jim Doe was unafraid. He watched it develop in time-lapse—the anvil forming; sheets of hail in the distance; the rows of mammatus hanging onto the belly of the cloud like eggs.”
At the same time, Jones plays with the time line and narrative structure, sometimes seeming to deconstruct the story as though he were shaking a box of paragraphs and letting fragments fall onto the page. The result is a chaotic backdrop that adds tension and a sense of unease to an already unnerving tale, flitting from location to location and character to character and plot to plot. Names change without warning—one character (whose true name is a key to the mystery) becomes 301JN, who becomes John13, who becomes Hari Kari. Some fiction rewards close reading—Sinners requires it.
Jones’s writing betrays a huge intelligence, but he embraces the genre’s conventions without sending them up or dumbing them down. The FBI agents, off-the-rack stereotypes, are offset by the complex and fully formed Jim Doe, who must straddle the line between his Blackfeet heritage and contemporary American society. Doe patiently tolerates the daily frustrations inherent in his situation—like Gentry’s old-school widow, who means no harm when she calls him Indian Joe. And Jones has created a shape-shifting psycho killer who is skin-crawlingly odd: Sometimes he’s “Father” to his abducted children in the basement and sometimes he’s a spectral wraith of a drifter, wired to the teeth on stolen pharmaceuticals, cruising America’s highways to a Steely Dan soundtrack.
At once lyrical and chilling, All the Beautiful Sinners is a fabulous mess of a thriller.
Unlike Jones, 31-year-old Amanda Eyre Ward planned to write even as a child, mostly because she thought it meant having two New York apartments (one to live in and one to work in), like her late screenwriter uncle, David Shaber (The Warriors, Last Embrace). Ward’s captivating literary debut, Sleep Toward Heaven (MacAdam/Cage), revolves around three women—a physician, a murderer, and a murder victim’s widow—whose lives spiral closer and closer as events unfold.
We first meet convicted serial killer-prostitute Karen Lowens on death row in the Mountain View Unit of the fictional Gatestown, Texas, women’s prison. Just 62 days remain before her execution by injection, but wracked with pain from AIDS, she has little life left for the state to take. Though guilty of killing and robbing her clients at roadside rest stops (the press dubbed her the Highway Honey), she is more victim than monster—a pathetic figure scarred by a lifetime of abuse and streetwalking. Karen might never have been caught were it not for a botched robbery that left three people dead, including an innocent bystander named Henry Mills, who had made the mistake of being in a 7-Eleven buying cold beer for his wife, Celia, when Karen ran in and opened fire with a handgun.
Five years after her husband’s murder, Celia still finds herself sleepwalking through life. She avoids friends. She makes the daily round-trip between her South Austin home and her library job with as little deviation and human interaction as she can manage. But one day, following the advice of her therapist, she writes a letter to her husband’s killer (“I begin with ‘Dear Karen,’ and then I stop, and cross it out. I try again: ‘To Ms. Lowens,’ and then the words come”).
Franny Wren, a physician who sought New York’s sophistication as the antidote to her provincial Texas roots, completes the book’s trio of central characters. Following a young patient’s death (made excruciatingly painful by a procedure she had recommended), Franny sinks into a horrible depression. Eventually, leaving work and fiancé behind, she escapes from the big city to her hometown of Gatestown to tend to the estate of her late uncle Jack—the doctor at the Mountain View Unit.
At its outset, Sleep Toward Heaven has well-developed scenes and dialogue but is light on story line—more like a fleshed-out character study than a novel. But Celia’s letter introduces a powerful theme: How do victims’ families survive in the same world with their loved ones’ killers? And a full-blown plot develops when Karen’s rumpled public defender of an attorney asks Celia and Franny, who has replaced Uncle Jack as the prison doctor, to write the governor urging him to stay Karen’s execution.
Ward doesn’t allow her story to get mired in a capital punishment debate. She focuses on the human dramas that tend to be trampled under the weight of ideology and rhetoric. To Celia, every mention of Karen Lowens is a painful reminder of her loss. But the scheduled execution—another death—doesn’t bring relief or comfort. “I know that Karen Lowens’ execution will never bring Henry back. . . . I also know that Henry would not want her executed . . . I know all this, and yet I do not care. I hate that woman . . .”
Nothing about Sleep Toward Heaven reads like a first novel. Its sophisticated structure weaves the three women’s stories in alternating chapters, and Ward unerringly chooses telling details and episodes. When Celia orders a bathing suit from a J. Crew catalog, she hopes it means that she’s moving on with her life, but of course, she’s really just buying a magenta bikini.
Ward does an especially good job of populating death row with multidimensional inmates and imagining their day-to-day interactions in miserable circumstances. She puts faces on people we don’t like to think about. And she conjures up a completely believable microsociety—funny and tragic and imbued with the morbid irony that comes from waking up each morning knowing the exact day and time you’ll die.