by Kevin P. Keating
Pantheon, July 2015, $24

Literary novels, horror, and humor seldom mix—fantasist Christopher Moore being one of the rare exceptions—but now comes Kevin P. Keating to deliver a brilliant novel so dark, yet so laugh-out-loud funny, that he’s close to inventing a new genre. Not that getting into his opus is easy.

From the opening 69-word-long first sentence, only slightly relieved by its 54-word-long follower, we are trapped in a wowser of a novel that ignores genre lines and plows right ahead into a farcical heart of darkness. At first, the setup doesn’t sound all that uncommon. Edmund Campion, a naive young student at a Jesuit prep school, is warned by his headmaster not to attend the college in the faraway town of Normandy Falls because of the burg’s bad reputation. The headmaster’s warning sounds so wildly over-the-top that Campion dismisses the man’s garish descriptions of mad scientists, haunted mansions, orgies, rapes, murders, and other insults to virtue. But as the book progresses, we realize the headmaster is a master of understatement. Normandy Falls is vile, and its effect on poor Campion is profound.

Within a year, the former star student is a drug-addicted drunkard working for the college’s landscape service. His dreams of writing the Great American Novel and/or a groundbreaking thesis on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary lie in ruins. In a style both brash and elegant—classical references abound in this wacky book—author Keating has a grand old time dragging Campion through the town’s moral sewer in scenes both horrific and hilarious. In one of them, the drug-addled Campion becomes convinced he’s channeling the spirit of a murdered woman and decides to play detective. It doesn’t end well.

As twisty and eye-popping as some of these scenes are, it’s the characters in the book who keep us glued to the pages. Notable are The Gonk, Campion’s secretive, violent boss who heads up a team of debauched yard workers known as the Ticks; Xavier D’Avignon, a carrot-obsessed chef, bootlegger, and drug dealer; and Lorelei, a stripper with a past as dark as her tattoos. Keating first broke on the literary scene with the highly praised The Natural Order of Things, which was described as a combination of Jack Ketchum and Jonathan Franzen. This second book, every bit as masterful, illustrates what might have happened to Holden Caulfield if he had wound up in Normandy Falls instead of the relatively virtuous New York City.

Betty Webb
Teri Duerr
July 2015