It’s not all that unusual for a good poet to turn around and write good fiction. Margaret Atwood is one obvious case, Michael Ondaatje another. What good poets have that fiction writers often do not is an awareness of how language resonates, how the sound of the words coming at you is just as important as the plot the words work to develop. This awareness, on the page, is called tone or mood or figurative language, but however you describe it, it’s more likely a poet will engage it than a trained novelist. Jim Peterson, the award-winning author of four poetry collections, certainly engages it with the curious Paper Crown, his first novel.
Blending elements of speculative and literary fiction with a poet’s touch for enigmatic prose, Paper Crown is not light reading for simple minds. It begins with no fewer than five epigrams on such topics as light, dreams and truth:
“. . . surely truth, if it exists for us to uncover in this world, is no different than a flood of light, out there for us to see but far more than we can take in (Peter Friederici).” The final epigraph, by Jorge Luis Borges, reads: “In the dream of the man that dreamed, the dreamed one awoke.” On turning the page the reader meets a character who will take on a kind of spiritual journey:
“When I was a very young man, I had nothing. It was okay to have nothing, but I didn’t know that. There were so many things I thought I wanted. And then I met some people who made me believe I could have it all. Thirty years ago I lived in a small apartment in Colorado Springs, in an old building that should have been condemned. Every night I had this dream, more memory than dream…”
In the description of the dream that follows, we learn that this now middle-aged man, Chuck, was the last person in the hospital room when his mother died. Six months later, Chuck leaves his father and his older brothers, and drives away in an old Volkswagen Beetle. In Colorado Springs, he meets Frank Posner (“There was something about the man that made me nervous”), the circulation manager at The Sun, who gives Chuck a job delivering papers in a rough section of town. Soon after starting his new job, Chuck meets Sandy, falls in love, and has her move into his dilapidated apartment.
Despite the mundane set-up, the first third of Paper Crown is both the most poignant and the freshest section of the novel, written with a compressed eloquence for which “understatement” seems too weak a word. Still, anyone familiar with the plight of being young, stupid, impressionable, sad, poor and in love will recognize Chuck’s situation as a bitter, perhaps comic echo of their early 20s.
On his first training day at the paper, while Frank shows Chuck how to roll the papers and toss them to the correct houses, Chuck has his first direct encounter with the enigma that is his new boss: “Then I saw something I couldn’t believe. Frank flipped a paper toward a porch, but it came up short, slamming flat into the top step. But then it stood up on one end, walked up the step like some kind of cartoon character and rolled toward the door.”
This is only the start.
Throughout his first months, as Chuck falls ever deeper in love with Sandy, he notices other of Frank’s odd attributes, not the least of which is Frank’s vehement disapproval of Sandy. Rubber bands wriggle on the wall, doors lock by themselves and in Frank’s office Chuck feels imaginary fingertips poking his eyes. One night at Frank’s house, Chuck learns his boss is the son of a magician and a gypsy woman. Frank wants to initiate Chuck into a kind of spiritual rite whereby Chuck will attain, among other skills, the telekinetic power that seems the most potent thing Frank could teach him.
The novel progresses into a fully armored sci-fi spiritual quest. It’s a quest thoroughly more satisfying than something like The Matrix—Peterson’s poetic prose and Chuck’s emotional journey take care of that. As the main character tries to comprehend his initiation into this cult, and why he must grapple with his past in order to become the “hollow” person Frank compels him to be, his tangible life falls into shambles. Sandy leaves him, he toys with the criminal side of telekinesis, and his dreams become a kind of nightmare reality, complete with a shadow-like spider following him around.
Despite the successful literary leaps by Peterson, and despite his ability to avoid the cheap side of sci-fi, at its end the novel feels half-finished. Peterson has adeptly presented an alternate reality that’s as elegiac as it is mysterious, but that he seems to abandon at the novel’s conclusion. In the book’s last moments, a narrative that has seemed to meander throughout the middle chapters suddenly pulls tight, but we never get a full understanding of the strange world with which Chuck has almost messed up his life.
Peterson underplays his conclusion, and yet it seems as disquieting as any poem he has ever written, a moment that suggests the almost invisible care with which this book was written. At its most uncertain, the novel feels patchy. At its best, it’s a reminder of how much vitality poets continue to contribute to the novel.
Jim Peterson is a former Montana resident and was recently involved in the Montana Repertory Theatre’s playwright workshop, Missoula Colony 10. Paper Crown is his first novel.