Love and TerrorPoe Ballantine’s memoir takes up his life story having recently returned from Mexico with his young Mexican girlfriend, Cristina. The two settle in the small town of Chadron, Nebraska (where Poe lived once before during his itinerant years) and get married. Before long they have a son, Tom. Tom is labelled as autistic, exhibiting slow verbal development, repetitive and ritual behaviours, and advanced facility with numbers and numerical concepts.

Before long, there’s trouble in Poe’s marriage, he and Cristina are fighting constantly. Poe wants to believe that their problems are caused by Cristina coming to terms with living in the US – having to learn English (understanding jokes is the last thing you learn in another language, which is especially hard on Ballantine, a funny man with a wife who couldn’t understand that he was funny), and making minimum wage as a cleaner despite having been a dentist in Mexico. Once she acclimatises they’ll be happy, or so Poe tells himself. But Cristina came to America with Ballantine imagining that all Americans are rich and successful. Poe, a writer and wanderer, was poor, and as he tells it, a disappointment to Cristina.

Then Poe’s neighbour Steven Haataja (pronounced Hah-de-ya) goes missing. Did he skip town? Commit suicide? Was he murdered? Ninety-five days later his body is discovered on a property near the university campus, burned beyond recognition, tied to a tree. At the time Ballantine was trying, and failing, to come up with an idea for his next book. Then it struck him, he knows everyone in Chadron, he knew Steven, he should write about Steve’s disappearance. I guess a part of every writer wants their very own In Cold Blood moment. So the strange disappearance of Steven Haataja ostensibly serves as the plot of Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. But I wouldn’t read Poe Ballantine’s book if you’re looking to find out exactly what happened to Steve, a tragically curious death that will likely remain a mystery. Much of Poe’s investigation involves navigating police incompetence, and local characters’ endless speculation based on the paltry facts available. But it remains a fascinating portrait of a town in crisis.

His memoir is just as much about his quest to save his marriage while raising a supposedly autistic child. Poe doesn’t really believe Tom is autistic, just a unique, curious, late bloomer. He questions whether there is anything to be gained by thinking that a child like Tom is autistic? He will always be different, and yet surely some people are different without having a condition. Ballantine takes comfort in stories of friends and acquaintances in which someone’s child was originally diagnosed autistic by alarmist medical professionals because he had, for instance, ‘delayed language, a high IQ, and would eat nothing but lentils’ and then nothing came of it.

Love & Terror is also a beautiful portrait of quirky, small town life. For someone who has spent much of his life resisting a permanent home or family Poe Ballantine’s love for his fellow townspeople and his generous heart are apparent on every page. Ballantine’s writing has an exceptional wit and soulfulness. He writes accessible, genuine poetry. Poe writes, to Cristina ‘My past was so wild it appeared to have been lived by Peter Pan sniffing airplane glue.’ If that line doesn’t bring a smile to your face then perhaps Love & Terror isn’t for you. It’s a quiet and understated book. Even the most passionate fights between Poe and Cristina are written without histrionics, without ego.

After reading Ballantine’s memoir for a bit I got the impression he could write about nothing more than buying groceries and it would somehow be funny, irreverent and touching. It is Poe Ballantine’s writing that makes Love &Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere so special. It’s just a pleasure to spend time in his sincere, thoughtful and self-deprecating company.