Nel Mezzo della Vita Press, 2007.
Corey Depew, scion of a false teeth empire, comes back from his army tour in Thule, Greenland, to the Gothic American Midwest of 1957 in a state of existential crisis. His family history goes back a century, to the origins of a four-generation curse. Concealed therein are pairs of twins, a symbol of evil in the form of a gigantic white pig a-wandering through the forests of northern Kentucky, a spontaneous combustion, a family member eaten by pigs, King Tut, race relations, the Church of Jesus Christ, Gentleman, the philosophy of the Everly Brothers and what it really means to lose face. The book is supposed to pretend to be serious.
BOOK THE FIRST: MARSHA, 1957
Chapter 1. In Which the Hero Visits the Zoo and Confronts His Simian Ancestry
This was a beginning: now the dead would rise from their graves, ghosts would roam the tormented night, and the pale hog-shape, resurrected, would drift among forest trees, huge and elusive and terrible. He couldn’t be certain, because some things, many things, were yet in his future, but Cory Depew was about to exhume his family from an unmarked pauper’s grave; he would turn up brittle bones, the faintest of outlines drawn in dust.
A pale shape, god of the great American Midwest, an indolent, lolling, smug, self-satisfied pig of a god, a huge hog-god, head sprawled, opened its eyes, snorts moving foul and damp through a rubber snout.
It looked down now on this Cold Warrior, returned to Valhalla after three years in Thule, Greenland, where nothing existed but snow and fog and Mozart. It was the summer of 1957, and Tammy, sung by Debbie Reynolds, was Number One on the hit parade. The sounds of it buzzed in his ears.
Tammy, Tammy, Tammy’s in love.
He walked aimlessly between the cages. The sun was high in a skyswept clean and blue. The humidity had risen, as always in summer when the river surrendered its vapors to the heat. Yet that was an autumn sky up there, above the Valhalla Zoo, above the gorilla, strangely pale, bleached by too much sunshine, too much rain.
Something profound was about to happen, though he could not say exactly what; something visceral and prophetic. Something existential.
He lingered by the gorilla cage with a small crowd of gawkers.
The gorilla, a sad, overweight, lugubrious Judge of a beast, sat gazing at the crowd with eyes that were tiny and sly. Whatever his verdict, he did not pass it on, but returned to languid exploration of his chest.
From time to time some delectable flake — a bit of dead skin or small crawling thing — provoked a grunt, followed by a delicate and precise gesture as the gorilla plucked it from between thumb and forefinger with rubber lips.
“This the one?” someone said.
“Yeah,” a boy said. “Watch.”
The gorilla looked up again. Children called down the winding concrete aisles, through the decorative shrubbery, voices a shrill and distant happy summer sound. More Sunday customers strolled up to lean lazily against the rail.
The radio playing Tammy faded away. Although the day was sunny and hot and ordinary there was a sudden suspension of motion, a pause of collective indrawn breath. The ape was about to do something.
He did it.
He stood and turned to the crowd. He stretched his arms out toward the bars, reaching through with long fingers, and wrapped them around the metal one at a time, with an amazing deliberation. Still looking at the people on the other side of the bars, people who could see in those small brown eyes not only an extraordinary intelligence, but a haunted, chilling despair, he leaned back until those arms seemed to be stretched out longer than arms should be.
He paused. His legs were spread apart, his feet planted firmly on the bare cement littered with the rinds of previous meals. There was, in a momentary, almost subliminal undulation of his hips and in the apparent readiness of his now-obvious genitals beneath a sagging belly, something obscene and horrific.
Then he squeezed his eyes shut, hunched his head down, and with an intense though constrained violence, smashed the top of his head against the bars between his hands.
He looked at the crowd again. His loose lips were turned down in a frown of pain. A trickle of crimson blood crawled down between his eyes. Then he turned away, loped to the back of the cage, sat for a moment, brushing the floor with the backs of his knuckles, and climbed to a wooden platform near the back of the cage.
The crowd was appalled. “Someone call a keeper! Someone! Get help!”
There was no help. No one appeared to soothe and reassure. The young man looked up at the pale sky neatly framed by the rich foliage of the zoo’s sycamores and elms. The bars of the gorilla’s roofless cage made straight, sharp lines; in either direction the walk curved away.
The gorilla, crouched on his platform, reached out for the rope dangling to the floor of his cage. He inspected the crowd adhered to the railing. No one could tear away. More and more ordinary Midwestern families, moms and pops and kiddies with dreams and desires, with diapers and secret despairs, were drawn into the hypnotic orbit swirling around the gorilla, under a swept blue sky above a Midwestern city beside a mighty river.
Behind the young man the press of people grew, gathering in density.
“Whadidedo?” someone asked behind him.
“Looked like he tried to kill hisself.”
“Nope. Banged his head on the bars. Weird.”
The gorilla looked up at this exchange, as though the conversation were familiar; were, in fact, a signal of some sort.
He cocked his head, eyes swiveled sideways toward his enthralled audience; he observed them all, the little boy pointing past Cory’s elbow for his father, a couple relating events for others further back, where the language changed. “Gorilla tried to commit suicide,” someone said.
“What, he sick?”
The gorilla seemed, uncannily, to smile.
He tossed the rope expertly into a single loop, twisted it cunningly into a knot, dropped the loop over his head, and without once releasing the people at the railing from that terrible eye contact, launched himself into the air.
The rope snapped taut, and the gorilla hung, bouncing at the end of the rope, his arms and legs gesticulating wildly, his now swollen genitals obscene and distended, swaying. His eyes popped wildly, his tongue lolled from his loose mouth. All around him the young man heard shouts for keepers and help.
Then the knot slipped away and abruptly dropped the gorilla, who landed on the floor of the cage with a strange grace of legs bending at the knees and gentle knuckles brushing the cement as he turned slowly, with his shoulders slumped in sadness and failure, to vanish through a small door at the back of the cage.
The crowd, now solemn and hushed, broke up, its Sunday a ruin.