ARISE AND WALK by Barry Gifford. (Hyperion: $19.95; 156 pp.) Generally, people don’t need to be told how to read fiction. Most novels have one of two main characters who walk us through a recognizable plot that roughly corresponds with the physical world. Then there are those books that repeatedly work against all conventions, even their own, until one may wish for an instruction manual explaining how the work is supposed to be read. “Arise and Walk,” by Barry Gifford is such a book.
Set in New Orleans, “Arise and Walk” chronicles the lives of various crazed and seedy individuals. There’s disgraced pastor Cleon Tone, whose destiny is entwined with Prisciencia Espanto, a televangelist and prophetess. Two other characters, escaped cons Ice D and Spit, are planning to assassinate Klarence Krotz, a right wing fanatic running for governor who has a secret erotic relationship with Bulgarian sardine czar, Zvatiff Thziz-Tszili. And the list goes on. The distressing thing about this teeming mass of humanity is not that they are unsympathetic--though that is also true--but that Gifford kills his main characters off and introduces new ones so many times that it is impossible to have an emotional investment.
With this limitation, it doesn’t become clear how to read “Arise And Walk” until the book is almost finished. This novel isn’t really concerned with people so much as with a single emotion, vengeance. It is, in fact, a mural of vengeance where each character comes on stage, makes a quick point and then dies surrendering to the larger picture. It is a very interesting idea, deftly handled. One may wish, however, that Gifford had somehow given just a few more clues a little earlier.