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Friday, February 20, 2015

Sharma Shields: "The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac"

Author:  Sharma Shields
Title:  The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac
Plot Type: Magical Realism     
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality3; Dark Humor—2 
Publisher:  Henry Holt & Co. (2/2015)    
Click HERE to go to The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac web site.   

     This novel is all about a man's obsession and the effects it has on the members of his family over a period of six decades. It can be described as a phantasmagorical version of Moby Dick, with the object of the lead character's obsession being a gigantic man-beast rather than a giant whale. Told chronologically, the story begins in 1943 when Eli Roebuck's mother, Agnes, introduces him to her extremely tall and shaggy friend, Mr. Krantz, who is "as furry and sleek as a grizzly bear" and smells "like a musty bearskin rug singed with a lit match." When Agnes speaks to Mr. Krantz, he responds with "senseless bleats and hoots." After feeding Mr. Krantz all of her homemade cornbread (offering none to Eli), Agnes then walks off into the forest with the monstrous man, leaving little Eli behind. The boy and his father soon realize that Agnes has truly abandoned them, and the first seeds of Eli's obsession are planted: to find Mr. Krantzthe Sasquatchand prove his existence to the world. 

     Although Eli goes through the normal stages of life, eventually marrying and becoming a podiatrist, he never forgets Mr. Krantz, who becomes more important to him than anyone or anything else in his life, including his wives, his daughters, and his long-lost mother. Even Eli's chosen career is a direct result of his obsession with the Sasquatch. After his mother disappeared with the beast, Eli studied their footprints for days, until rain washed them away. "Eli's obsession with the footprints, so monstrous beside the dainty footprints of his mother, had led him down pathways geographical, emotional, professional; they led him into the woods, into loneliness, into podiatry and beyond...Their imprints would be on the backs of his eyelids forever, flashing in neon pinks and purples and reds and yellows, whenever he closed his eyes." As Eli's first marriage falls apart and his wife and daughter become bitter and estranged from him, he cuts back on his medical practice and becomes a renowned cryptozoologist. Soon he marries again and has another daughter, but he spends much of his time in the forests along the Washington-Idaho border searching in vain for Mr. Krantz.

     Eli's personal obsession anchors the plot, but the story zigzags back and forth among Eli's wives and daughters to check in periodically on their shaky emotional states. What Eli doesn't realize until too late is that, like his mother, he has abandoned his family. Both Eli and Agnes go off into the woods: Agnes to live with her Sasquatch husband and Eli to track him down. Agnes is physically absent, and Eli is emotionally absent. Eli's obsession with Mr. Krantz rarely intersects with his family life, but when it does, the scenes are darkly humorous. In one scene, Eli smuggles a rusty bear trap under his coat when he attends his daughter's kindergarten music recital because it holds Mr. Krantz's metatarsal bone and he's afraid that someone will steal it if he leaves it in his car. A drunken dentist spots the trap, and, of course, trouble ensues. In another scene, Eli's life-sized, "anatomically correct," robotic statue of Mr. Krantz inflicts destruction and terror on a small-town parade. 

     As you would expect, Eli's preoccupation with Mr. Krantz affects his family members in all kinds of negative ways. What you wouldn't expect are the monstersboth literal and figuralthat haunt all of their lives. The literal monsters include a flock of ominously prescient starlings, a bird-legged purveyor of disturbing oddities, a lake monster, an evil gypsy fortune teller, a tentacled grandmother, and Mr. Krantz himself. The figurativevery personalmonsters include guilt, hysteria, paranoia, rage, and rebellion. 

     This is a weirdly terrific book, with well-drawn characters and inventive situations. The author weaves supernatural elements from myths and fairy tales into a family saga that lays bare the human frailties found to some degree in any family, although I must admit that the Roebuck family is quirkier and creepier than most. The writing style is a mash-up of the plot peculiarities of Ransom Riggs, the character eccentricities of early John Irving (e.g., Setting Free the BearsThe World According to Garp) and the grotesque imagination of Franz Kafka. Occasionally, a character (like Eli's first wife) fades into a one-dimensional cut-out, but generally, Shields does a great job of creating a wildly diverse family group. Among the weird plot elements, the only one that feels slightly amiss is the Zoophilia Support Group (ZSG) that Agnes eventually joins (a very Irving-esque contrivance). The puppy babies are a bit over the top, even for this quirky novel. The ZSG does have its humorously ironic moments, though, particularly since this all-female group is led by an earnest but condescending man who lauds the group as the "first women-only Inland Empire chapter" and tells them that "We're all here to help one another. We're here to stop loving beasts."—paternalistically including himself as one of the "We." 

     Shields's central theme is the need for each of the Roebucks to establish proofproof that they are loved, that they belong, that they are sane, that their decisions are rational, that their commitments are sound, and (in Eli's case) that his long-held memories are real. Each character defines "proof" in a most personal way. For example, Gladys (Eli's nutty first wife) exults in "this togetherness" with her family as Eli helps their daughter Amelia pry a bloody knife from her hand and hold her down on the floor while they wait for the arrival of an ambulance to cart her away to a mental hospital. The delusional Gladys sees this violent struggle as proof that she has finally reunited with her family. 

     As Shields tells her story, she skillfully intermingles mythological events and real-life experiences, mysterious creatures and mystifying humans, arcane monsters and mundane misfits, until the reader is drawn into a bemused state of suspense, waiting with bated breath to see what bizarre event or entity will generate the next fateful twist or turn in the chronicle of the ill-fated Roebuck family. Click HERE to read the first chapter of this novel. 

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