A moral fable in the guise of a murder mystery, John Burnside’s “The Glister” has an unusual protagonist: its own prose style. Burnside, a Scot, has published 11 collections of poetry as well as a memoir, “A Lie About My Father,” and fiction, including the novel “The Devil’s Footprints.” Here, the language in which it’s told is crucial to how we read this darkly beautiful meditation on death, guilt and redemption.
Not that there isn’t a hero of the regular, human sort: Leonard Wilson, a precociously bookish 15-year-old boy in a derelict Scottish industrial town. At intervals of a year or two, five of Leonard’s schoolmates, all boys, have vanished. The authorities debunk widespread fears of foul play by claiming the boys have run off to the big city. Leonard knows better: “People from the Innertown don’t leave, not even to go on holiday or visit relatives. They talk about leaving all the time, of course, but they never actually get out.”
Why? In part, because the huge chemical plant that once gave work to the town’s residents poisoned everything before it was closed down: soil, vegetation, animals, people. The older generation has died off or, like Leonard’s father, languishes on the dole, prey to exotic illnesses. But the malaise is more than physical. It’s a sin: “the sin of omission, the sin of averting our gaze and not seeing what was going on in front of our eyes. The sin of not wanting to know; the sin of knowing everything and not doing anything about it. The sin of knowing things on paper but not knowing them in our hearts. Everybody knows that sin.”
The local constable, John Morrison, finds the first missing boy one night, ritualistically slain, hanging from a tree, but rather than publicize the crime or investigate it himself he phones Brian Smith, the home-grown magnate to whom he owes his job. Smith orders a coverup. Morrison, an insecure man with an alcoholic wife, obeys, at soul-destroying cost. As the years pass, and more boys disappear, he loses all self-respect. His only rebellious gesture, a secret one, is to tend a little garden in the woods as a shrine to the boys.
Smith, then, is a villain, but he isn’t necessarily the murderer. He is interested in puzzle-solving, in finding new and ingenious ways to make money out of other people’s troubles. His Homeland Peninsula Company absorbs the funds that the government and the plant’s former owners shovel into the Innertown. (“The great thing about public money,” Smith muses, “is that it doesn’t stay public for long.”) It doesn’t matter whether the pollution is actually cleaned up or residents become healthier, so long as those in charge are seen to be making the appropriate gestures. Unsolved murders would spoil this cozy arrangement.
Teenagers like Leonard don’t believe the official line, but they don’t know what else to believe. If there has been a coverup, he suspects, its main purpose is to keep the townspeople scared, confused and morally inert.
Everywhere in “The Glister,” slippery slopes lead down to evil, despite the characters’ yearnings for beauty, love and goodness. Leonard’s girlfriend, Elspeth, at first seems lively and original, but she proves to be damaged and manipulative, a sex addict. The great works of Western literature Leonard reads can’t keep him from joining a gang of delinquents that -- in an attempt to do something about the disappearances -- viciously attacks an elderly recluse named Andrew Rivers, wrongly believed to be a pedophile.
At some point, we realize that the mystery of the lost boys isn’t likely to be solved -- at least not in a conventional way. Other mysteries pile on top of it, including psychedelic visions Leonard has while drinking tea brewed by the Moth Man, an itinerant scientist who may also be an avenging angel of the Lord. The Moth Man leads Leonard to a “portal” in the chemical plant, where the old machinery is stamped with the maker’s name: G. Lister. “Glister” is also an archaic word for a gleam of light, and light, hellish or heavenly, lies beyond the door.
A far-out, ambiguous tale, in the end. Yet we keep on reading it and hoping for answers, because Burnside’s prose, full of feeling yet hyper-controlled, logical and convincing, seems to assure us, line by line, that we will find them, even when we doubt we will. Meaning seems to be inherent in it, as in the world at large -- even in a world filled with suffering, a world of puzzles only the mercenary Smiths seem able to crack.
Harris is a critic and the author of the novel “The Chieu Hoi Saloon.”