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Book of beasts

By Nick Owchar

Like many an excellent chronicler of village life, Lauren Groff gives us early in "The Monsters of Templeton" (Voice/Hyperion: 364 pp., $24.95) an ensemble view of the citizens of Templeton, a place very closely modeled on Cooperstown, N.Y., birthplace of baseball -- and Groff.

You know what an ensemble view is: an event prompting villagers to come out in force, an opportunity for the narrator's camera to move from face to face. In Cheever's "The Wapshot Scandal," for example, the story begins with a view of the town, then the narrator moves among a group of Christmas carolers, telling us a little about each in preparation for the events to come.

But early in Groff's novel, we have a different kind of gathering -- the townies come out to see the giant carcass of a monster that has floated up from the depths of Lake Glimmerglass. Our narrator, Wilhemina Upton, scans the crowd with a light tone of mockery that, by novel's end, a reader can't help but love. She sees "high school sweethearts gone paunchy and Republican," "old doctors who knew too much about my vital functions" and "my elementary school principal, a bald little elf of a man. . . ." And in the middle of this crowd, she sees herself. Next to all those faded flowers of promise, she is "Scion of the Great Temple Family," "Homecoming Queen," "Local Girl Made Good" and, with great misery, "Soon to Be Great Disappointment to All."

The monster's death coincides with Willie's (she much prefers this to her given name) unexpected return home from graduate school. A brilliant archeology student, she fell in love with her Stanford professor, had an affair with him in the Alaskan tundra, then, when the professor's wife arrived, beat it back to her hometown. Willie is in a state of incompletion -- she's unresolved about the professor, her doctoral work is unfinished, and when she touches her flat stomach, she feels the pulse of their child. In a state of denial, she calls it "The Lump" throughout the story.

Willie's pregnancy is not so different from what happened to her ex-hippie mother, Vivienne. Well, maybe a little different. For a long time, Willie believed that she was the product of "wild sex with three hippies in a commune," the daughter of three men (which has a weird echo of the Trinity). On her return home, Vi tells her that she's the child of one of Templeton's citizens. In fact, her father is someone related to Vi through one of the sprawling branches of the Templeton family tree, dating to the town's 18th century founder, Marmaduke.

Vi is reluctant to tell Willie her father's name, instead giving her clues (leading to another weird echo, this time of the story line of "Mamma Mia" -- hey, is Groff a fan of Abba?). One of the fascinating tensions pulling the reader along is Willie's detective work to determine who her father is.

Meanwhile, as Groff establishes her story line, the monster (nicknamed Glimmey by the townsfolk) floats in the shallows, photographed by news teams, investigated by biologists. Its arrival from the depths is an intriguing symbol underscoring Willie's own plunge into the past -- what monsters are hidden there? Or, as she puts it in a lovely moment early in the book, recalling a swim in the lake: "I remembered how, even on that long-ago night, I could feel a tremendous thing moving in the depths below me, something vast and white and singing."

For a column like this one, about myth and lore, it seems appropriate to say that Groff's stylish story plays in a funky way with Oedipus' search for his and his father's identities. In "The Monsters of Templeton," the role of the Sphinx is certainly played by Vi, who gives Willie riddles instead of answers. The Greek chorus would have to be the Running Buds, an ever-present group of older male joggers who speak as "we" and seem to act as the town's conscience. Then there's Willie's friend Clarissa, who sends her advice over long distances via the phone the way Minerva sent off her owl to assist those in her favor. Then there's. . . . OK, you get it. Enough.

But I also just wanted to know, what exactly is this "thing" that floats in the lake? We get plenty of descriptions of it:

"The beast was huge, a heavy cream color that darkened to lemon in places. . . . It looked like a carp grown enormous, with a carp's fat belly and round eye, but with a long, articulated neck like a ballet dancer's, and four finned legs, plump as a frog's."

One of the first on the scene, Herman Kwan, billed as a "world-famous vertebrate biologist," is positively stumped: "[W]e haven't had a discovery of this magnitude. Well, since fishermen caught a new species of coelacanth off the coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia. 1938. . . . We have simply no ideas as yet what the animal. Well, even what it is. It may be a new species entirely. It may not even have a fossil record!"

Too bad Kwan's scientific vocation limited him from consulting other sources. He might have turned to a bestiary for help.

THE BESTIARY, or "book of beasts," which was an attempt to make sense of the world's creatures, became popular in the Middle Ages. Some of the most well known -- like "The Aberdeen Bestiary" -- show us what happens when reality and imagination meet.

These lavish books, illuminated by monks, preceded more scientific efforts to catalog the animal kingdom. When the Linnaean classification arrived with its binomial setup, the emphasis on scientific specificity drove away the fanciful beasts that populated bestiaries (much like, I envision, the fiends in Milton's "Nativity Ode" being driven from their groves by the news of Christ's birth).

Bestiaries didn't distinguish, didn't discriminate -- there was room for everything. In a popular translation of one by the great Arthurian novelist T.H. White, we find the fabled and the real comfortably nestled side by side. There is the lynx, for example, sharing a page with the glorious griffin. About the lynx we learn some credible things -- "the brute is distinguished by spots on the back like a Pard" -- but also some wonderfully bizarre "facts": "They say that his urine hardens into a precious stone called Ligurius, and it is established that the Lynxes themselves realize this. . . ."

Established how? Were they seen taking their precious stones to a jeweler?

Bestiaries exhilarated such writers as Borges (who created a bestiary of sorts that is available from Viking, "The Book of Imaginary Beings") and filled the imaginations of Herodotus, Pliny the Elder and Thomas Browne. Last year, poet and novelist Nicholas Christopher published a wonderful novel, "The Bestiary" (Dial Press), about a young man's lifelong quest to find "The Caravan Bestiary," an ancient book compiling all the animals left after the biblical Great Flood.

The creature that Groff describes, with its long, fish-like body and neck, made me think first of the prehistoric fish described by Neil Shubin in "Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5 Billion-Year History of the Human Body" (Pantheon). Then I turned to some bestiaries to consider various water creatures with necks, and none seemed to quite satisfy Groff's description either.

Eventually, readers are given a drawing of Glimmey by a townie: The sketch included in the novel shares with bestiaries a blending of parts, that strange merging of animals resulting in wondrous creatures such as the Hippogriff (a horse crossed with a griffin). Glimmey looks like a mix of a giant goldfish, lizard, frog and, for some reason (I can't say exactly why), a Yorkshire terrier.

When one is deep in these considerations, before too long, it becomes clear that "The Monsters of Templeton," in its way, is a bestiary in disguise. Does it not contain records of all the strange figures in the Templeton family? Like a bestiary, too, Groff's book supplies us not just with a rendering of Glimmey but also with photographs and drawings of all the other "monsters" in question, Willie's ancestors. There's the former slave Hetty Averell, who brazenly marries one man while carrying another's child; there's Jacob Franklin Temple, who, after failing at so many careers, discovers that he is an excellent storyteller and goes on to great success like the figure he's modeled after, James Fenimore Cooper.

The novel's title refers to monsters, but aside from Glimmey and a peculiar ghost in Vi's cottage -- it has a thing about hygiene -- the monsters in this novel are more the kinds that Sherwood Anderson explored: people warped and twisted by disappointments and struggles. He called them "grotesques"; Groff prefers a different word.

"MONSTERS" is also a very funny book, replete with humorous misunderstandings, and Willie's tone moves from that of self-mockery to sarcasm to tenderness. Groff has a flair for the unusual metaphor, such as when a young woman, newly deflowered, describes herself in her diary as "the girl who that morning a week ago walked back to Edgewater, sore as the first time she ever rode Western." Her story also contains subtle allusions to other authors (a female character who's a fire starter may remind some of a similar Stephen King character; another uses rat poison à la Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" to dispatch several husbands), but none of this feels derivative.

Characters deepen and grow as Willie's search continues. Vi, who begins in caricature -- a burned-out ex-hippie who's found religion -- develops into a steady, life-affirming presence (is that the source of her character's name? I wonder), a source of strength for Willie, who, despite all her resourcefulness and self-reliance, needs someone to be strong for her. When it becomes clear that this is Vi, Willie's praise of her mother is moving -- and feels genuine:

"So many nights I had held her head in my lap and comforted her after someone had slighted her in town, after her own delicate ego had been shattered yet again. The strong, huge woman I saw driving our car across the dark town seemed foreign to me. Only years later did it strike me that however weak Vi could be about her own sorrows, when faced with others', she became spectacular. This is what allowed her to soothe the dying into calmer deaths, this largeness of Vi's, this softness."

Willie needs this "largeness" to sort out her life: The professor she fell for, an egotistical Brit named Primus (another aptly chosen name), clearly doesn't intend to give up his wife for her, and Willie doesn't know what to do with Zeke Felcher, the hunky tow-truck driver who does his utmost to sweep her off her feet. Groff shows how Willie's quandary, her difficult choices, play out against the background of all her female ancestors, including Hetty, Remarkable Prettybones, Cinnamon Averell Graves, Ginger Averell, Charlotte Temple and several others.

What Groff illustrates so deeply, and uniquely, is the difficulty of shaking off one's family ties, one's roots. When Vi scolds Willie for her hesitation to accept Zeke, the comment speaks to a larger flaw in Willie's personality that, in the end, is what she needs to face in coming home:

"Your problem, Sunshine . . . is that you can't see straight through your snobby little worldview. Nobody in Templeton would ever be good enough for you. If they're in Templeton, it means they're second rate in your little head."

But what Willie finds out about her ancestors -- murders and miscegenation quietly covered up -- thoroughly shakes that worldview. The story Groff tells in the novel's second half should make anyone suspicious of the "official" history handed out at their local chamber of commerce. Beware those sugary images of pioneers and visionaries. Willie also finds her father and experiences a crisis with the Lump -- though all of this resolves in an unexpected, satisfying way.

Getting back to the monster for a moment, the last time we see it, Glimmey is being hoisted by a crane from the water: A stink of fishiness wafts over the town, and so does a pall of sorrow because the mystery of the lake has been solved. Lake Glimmerglass now is just another lake.

Looking back on the many lives Groff describes in this richly imagined novel, you can't help but feel that the monster's death was necessary. In getting rid of Glimmey, Groff makes room for the bigger mysteries of Willie's quest into her past and her decisions about Primus, Zeke and the Lump. Only then will Willie have a chance to get over her hang-ups about Templeton.

Nick Owchar is deputy editor of Book Review. The Siren's Call appears monthly.

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"The View From the Seventh Layer" by Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon: 274 pp., $21.95)

Kevin Brockmeier occupies the seat of the storyteller of old, the ancient poet spinning tales out of thin air, allegories, puzzles. He creates worlds that are "like" ours -- there are cultural references to movies and middle-class luxuries -- but there are also strange elements like "the Entity," a being whom Olivia, the main character in this collection's title story, sees as her savior. Savior from what? It is clear that this young woman has been damaged, but Brockmeier is cunning in the way he spreads clues across this story about the sunny island where Olivia cleans houses, keeps to herself and struggles with her memories.

Some writers show us the world we live in. Brockmeier shows us, instead, the one we might live in if only we had a little more imagination, if only we were more alive to the possibilities. He's a fabulist, a myth maker, but it doesn't seem right -- too reductionist, I think -- to go with Lydia Millet's suggestion that he is "an American Italo Calvino." These stories are full of otherworldliness, of fantasy, but Brockmeier is his own person; his work is hardly imitative of Calvino even if at times it suggests that. Brockmeier toys with the "choose your own adventure" method of children's books in "The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device," just as the spirit of a dead girl toys with a lonely young priest in "Father John Melby and the Ghost of Amy Elizabeth."

In making his otherworlds credible to us, he doesn't follow the journalistic method of piling countless details, sensory and otherwise, to make us accept them as places. Instead, he handles these strange places and unusual occurrences with extreme restraint, almost a deadpan delivery, resulting in clarity and beautiful subtlety.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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