Archives for posts with tag: autism

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.

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Gods+Without+MenI can see why my cover of Gods Without Men sports a blurb from David ‘Cloud Atlas’ Mitchell, both men have crafted novels made up of interlocking stories spanning generations, although Hari Kunzru has joined his stories more conventionally than Mitchell did in Cloud Atlas. All Kunzru’s action is linked by his focal Mojave desert setting, characters from earlier time frames appear decades later and plot points from decades past set up those of the future.

When Gods Without Men opened with a twisted fable from a time when animals were men, about Coyote cooking crystal in an RV in the desert, I knew I was in for a ride. A book so damn cool it hurts.

The story of Jaz and Lisa and their autistic young son, Raj, is what anchors Kunzru’s novel. Their plight is so incredibly, viscerally painful to read. Raj doesn’t speak at all, doesn’t express love and throws violent temper tantrums. It’s left Jaz and Lisa’s marriage in ruins. Their lives are hard enough, between taking care of Raj, and conflict between Jaz’s Indian immigrant family and white, Jewish Lisa, when Raj disappears near the desert rock formation known as the Pinnacles. Somewhat curiously in tandem to Raj’s disappearance is Jaz’s work on Wall Street, right before the global financial crisis in 2008, helping to develop a mysterious predictive trading model.

At the same time British rock star Nicky escapes to the desert to take drugs and have a bit of a mental breakdown, his life briefly intersecting with Jaz’s.

And Iraqi teenager Laila is recruited to take part in a training exercise for the military, preparing American troops for the war in Iraq. In one of the very rare moments of humour, a soldier dressed as an Iraqi insurgent who has lost his dishdasha wears a Little Mermaid beach towel wrapped around his waist instead.

There are appearances by Spanish Conquistadors. Deighton and his wife Eliza turn up in the 1920s Mojave collecting Native American tales, language and history.

In the fifties, sixties and seventies the desert near the Pinnacle Rocks is home to an alien-worshipping cult, whose members are dedicated to assisting the Ashtar Galactic Command. This was a favourite of mine; I always get a kick out of reading about the unusual. Kunzru gives us an alien spin on the counterculture, hippy vibe of the 1960s and seventies.

Gods Without Men is the kind of book where questions are left unanswered, leaving this reader unsettled, and several of the characters unhinged. I guess I was left unsatisfied at the end. Kunzru builds to a crescendo, then nothingness. I’m not naive enough to that a novel like Gods Without Men will finish neatly or happily. It deals with the mystical, the alien and the inexplicable. Many scenes feature a strange glowing boy but this is no science fiction. Kunzru has no obligation to provide answers, no need for logic.

I wouldn’t read Gods Without Men looking for anything as prosaic as beginning, middle or end, it’s snippets or sketches of moments in characters’ lives. Kunzru’s writing and storytelling style starts off pretty conventionally. It felt to me that, as Gods Without Men progresses, his writing becomes more fluid, experimental and freewheeling, almost as if the pressure and insanity of the story were crumbling its very structure. Which brings me back to Cloud Atlas, a book I loved. David Mitchell – fairly conventional storytelling made majestic with an experimental twist. Hari Kunzru – experimental storytelling done a tad too conventionally, making me yearn for a real ending. If only it’d been a little nuttier. Something like Thomas Pynchon. I’ll admit I’ve only read The Crying of Lot 49, a great book that I appreciated for its brevity. A bizarre, pseudo-mystery, with more questions than answers, suits that length.

Gods Without Men is incredibly impressive, with bravura storytelling. Kunzru weaves the characters’ stories deftly and eloquently but I couldn’t see any of them getting a reprieve from their demons. His fourth novel is a strangely readable, epic and detailed tale of religion, worship and madness. You just need to be in the right mood.