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Partway a father-son novel, partway a paean to the ethos of the old TV Westerns, THE LONG COUNT, set mostly in East Texas, describes a woman in a mental institution in 1967 who is experiencing dissociative personality disorder. This book review will experience dissociative personality disorder as well. It is addressed to potential readers in the United States, potential readers among world readers in English, but also to its author, J. M. Gulvin, who is Welsh. To the first two groups, I will say, pretty good first novel, with a remarkable psychological twist at the end. I direct the author to the last paragraph or two, in which I describe some of the things he needs to research a bit more before writing additional novels about Texas.
Note: This is the only novel I have ever read in which catfish noodling plays a part.
Dramatis personae: John Quarrie, a Texas Ranger who, even when he's not wearing a white hat, wears a white hat; his son James, in grade school back at the ranch; Pious Noon, a black man, a buddy who rescued John when they both served in Korea, now a pilot and ranch employee; Icarus Bowen, father of twin sons, unfortunately dead and made to look like a suicide (but he was murdered); his twin sons Isaac, a Viet Nam veteran who is just home after his third tour, and Ishmael, who has been incarcerated in a home for the criminally insane; a quartet of nurses, Nancy McClain, a longtime employee of the mental institution, Miss Annie, who insanely rocks a baby-doll in her locked room at the institution, Carla Simpson, now working as a barmaid at a dance hall, and Mary-Beth Gavin, a phenomenal nurse who has mysteriously disappeared; Dr. Beale, a psychotherapist whose egotism ultimately got the best of him; miscellaneous ranch hands, orderlies, sheriffs, deputies.
THE LONG COUNT is written as a thriller. From the beginning, chapters alternate between those told from the vantage of the serial killer, identified as "he," and the law enforcement agents who pursue and just miss him as he downs one after another people who are in his way. At first, "his" victims make no sense: a policeman who comes upon him at the train depot, a travelling salesman, a female clerk at a factory, a newspaper seller. The randomness of the killings and the constantly changing parade of stolen cars keep the killer safe and his potential victims in mortal danger. The title refers to the number of seconds before which a swimmer must come up for air to avoid drowning, a moniker that becomes important as the plot, as they say, thickens.
As the novel moves forward, Texas Ranger John Quarrie circles closer to a murder that seems to have little to do with the serial killer's other victims: a Korean veteran has been found dead at his desk, a gun in his hand, an apparent suicide. His son, a newly returned Viet Nam veteran, returns home to find his father is no longer alive to welcome him. We learn that Isaac, the returning veteran, has a twin brother Ishmael, who has been incarcerated at a home for the criminally insane. When we find that the institution where Ishmael had been living burned down, and that some of the inmates are unaccounted for, we realize that we might know the identity of the murderer. Indeed, as the novel continues, the murders take on a pattern: people who were connected to the mental institution are in danger.
Which does not tell you, readers, what the novel is like. We do a lot of driving in automobiles with chrome and fins, because Texas is a big state and this novel's events cover many counties. Quarrie, who is called "Q," frequently calls his son to hear the boy's reports of what he has been doing while his father is away. Q makes use of forensic techniques that are just becoming available. His reasoning powers and his powers of observation are not Holmesian, but they may be a slower, small-town rancher-type version of Sherlock's. Every few chapters, the murderer knocks off another one. Only putting together the puzzle of why he does what he does can enable Q to stop him. There is warmth. There is not so much a presence of evil, but rather a presence of misunderstanding, of things gone wrong that need putting to rights.
Mr. Gulvin, let's you and me talk. Before you write that next novel, and perhaps while you edit this one, make frequent use of a tool called Google. 1. The Red River does not occupy a canyon until much further west in its course. In East Texas, which is where you have set your novel, it is a very wide, braided, sometimes shallow river between sandy banks that it is slowly eroding. 2. All of the places where you have set your novel are in East Texas. The cover, as one can easily see in Google Images, is quite green. We are not far enough west for the land to become mid-grass or short-grass prairie. Tree cover is Oak-Beech, Magnolia-Sweetgum, or Loblolly Pine. The land is sometimes gently rolling, and it wants to grow trees. That long sight-distance that we see in TV westerns starts much further to the west. N.B.: Paris, Texas, the movie, was actually shot in Marathon, which is in that far western habitat. Paris is, in fact, eastern, as well-watered. 3. We spell it ma'am, not mam, but your usage of it for all females of decent reputation is correct 4. Dissociative Identity Disorder was not called that until a later version of the DSM. In the DSM III, which is closer to your timeframe, it was called Hysterical Neurosis. 5. We actually do noodle catfish. Good work. 6. We don't have canned haricot beans. We called them green beans, but you may need to retain "haricot" for your readership. 7. Not hydrocodone tablets. Our problems with these are recent, because the illegal drug sales forces were not so well organized, nor was the drug so well known as a problem. It did exist, but it was under a different name. 8. I do not see an HEB in Paris. The store also does not have a big presence in Dallas. It started south and west, and its stores are concentrated in that direction. More likely stores are Kroger (still exists) and Piggly Wiggly. 9. It takes a long, long time to drive the distances that you are discussing. During that time, we often think about things. 10. Um, it's called Tornado Alley. A tornado is vastly different from a hurricane. 11. We did not use the F-word, ever, in small-town Texas in the 1960s. That is a modern thing. Now, to reach your modern readers, you may need to use the F-word; however, it's not period. 12. We don't prise cigarettes from packages, although British people do. People would tap the package on their hands until a few cigarettes were shaken out, then choose one to smoke. Probably most people back then did not regard cigarette smoke as a stench. We did not know, or we chose not to know, that cigarettes were dangerous. 13. Viet Cong, two words, both initial capped. 14. Shotguns shoot shot. That means that there is not one hole, but many, many holes. A victim is pretty much shredded at close range. A pistol leaves one hole. 15. Pious is a very unusual character indeed. It is hard, so very hard, for white people who have never known the kind of oppression placed upon black people, to write a black character who has endured such treatment. If Pious spent time in Georgia, then he would have been in a state in which, if a black person even looked at a white woman, he might have been lynched. In less than a year after the events you tell in your novel take place, Martin Luther King will die. Maybe just leave Pious exactly as he is, but do know, Texas is redneck country. As redneck country breeds the worst of us, it breeds also the best. However, the best have to decide to be the best, and they stand out like sore thumbs.
Peace, Mr. Gulvin. One of my family names is Rubottom, which is Deer Valley in Welsh.
§ Dr. Cathy Downs is Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, where she teaches American literature.
Reviewed by Cathy Downs, December 2014
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