[Scribner; 2011]

by Scott Beauchamp

“Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people wanting to be important.”–T.S. Eliot

James Boice’s third novel, The Good and the Ghastly, couldn’t have been published at a more opportune time. Besides riding the wave of post-apocalyptic (or in this case, maybe more accurately  post-post-apocalyptic) fascination that has spun films from such unlikely sources as Cormac McCarthy’s most stark and depressingly stoic novel, it’s also important that The Good and the Ghastly was released around the same time that Whitey Bulger was locked-up. When I heard the news of Bulger’s arrest, it seemed like a literary real-life epilogue to Boice’s novel, which I had just finished reading. And although The Good and the Ghastly ends with more of a metaphorical flourish than Whitey Bulger’s life will, there is more truth in the contours of the novel’s language than you’ll be able to find in the facts of Bulger’s criminal career. That’s why this novel is just as, if not more, necessary than any true-crime, shocker biography about Bulger.

 

Born in 1929 in North Boston, James Joseph Bulger was the kind of sociopathic Irish mob boss who obsessed over image control and public relations while at the same time extorting, murdering, comitting armbed robbery, etc. In other words, everyone except his victims thought of him as a Robin Hood figure. And some of his exploits really were mythic, in that American sense of ‘myth’ as being something that translates well to the movie screen. We can see Jack Nicholson in The Departed channeling Bulger by emphasizing the rough-hewn realist, his ability to see ten steps ahead of everyone around him, his ever-shifting allies and loyalties and moods. Nicholson plays Bulger as a frantic figure who had too much of a good thing. Too much money. Too much drugs. Too much pussy. Too much power. And so when everything falls apart, the deaths and the arrests are all mechanically expected. The crimes and exploits form a laundry list that we fetishize. It distances us from the man’s inner life and ends up perpetuating the myth. And that’s exactly what he would want. Powerful sociopaths are magnetic, both in that they attract us on a very fundamental level while simultaneously repelling our deeper gaze into their motivations. They would rather be percieved as inexplicable, inhuman forces, of whom to inquire about their motivations would be like asking the wind why it choses to blow. Boice defies the urge to fetishize. Instead, he inhabits his sociopathic main character and explores him from the inside. That’s why The Good and the Ghastly isn’t only timely and interesting and necessary. It’s also brave.

Junior Alvarez, the fictional medium that Boice uses to channel Whitey Bulger, is born into an economically and emotionally impoverished family. Pretty much abanoned by his parents after an episode of deliquency leads to his incarceration in a juvenile detention center, he takes ‘Alejandro El Grande’ as his hero and vows to become a powerful man who will sear his image into history itself. There’s a profound restlessnes haunting Alvarez, made all the more powerful by his brutal intelligence. Starting off as a low-level enforcer for a local mob kingpin, The Good and the Ghastly traces Junior’s slow and steady rise towards some undefined evil center of power within himself. There are robberies and murders and bribes. There are lies and rumors that are transformed by violence and fear into urban legend. Which is just the way that Junior wants it. Boice takes us deep inside the inner world of Junior, occasionally identifying so much whith the protagonist that he slips into a first person narration of Junior’s inner voice. Other characters play major roles in the novel, but Junior is obviously the sun around which everything else revolves and depends. Even Josefina Hernandez, who dedicates her life to the hunting and destruction of Junior as retribution for the beating death of her son, is motivated ultimately in response to Junior’s ambition. Junior is the source of all the action. Even in the end of the novel, which concludes in a literal Yin-Yang of insane human desire and frailty, Junior the literary character has accomplished everything he set out to do. He has burned his image into the mind of the reader. This kind of almost intuitive exploration of sociopathy lends itself well to understanding more mild forms of its manifestations in politicians, athletes, businessmen, and *ahem* artists. That may be the most haunting part of inhabiting Junior Alvarez, seeing fragments of him mirroring pieces of yourself.

It should be mentioned that the book takes place in the future. I wont bother to describe in detail the post-nuclear war (but with civilization rebuilt) society that the novel is set in, except to say that it rhymes with ours in a lot of ways with a few kind of humurous twists and misinterpretations of history. For example, most songs are attributed to Bob Dylan and Sarah Palin is remembered as the person who discovered evolution. And at first I found all of this too cute and distracting. What does VISA owning the government lend to the book? But as I settled in to the text I was grateful to be able to see these characters with fresh eyes, in an almost labratory setting, unencumbered by loaded cultural bric-a-brac that a book taking place here and now would have been weighed down by. The strange external environment made it all the easier to enter into Junior’s inner world.

In recent interviews Boice has said that The Good and the Ghastly represents his best writing yet. Being as young as he is, there’s no reason to believe that he won’t write more and even better in the future. And with The Good and the Ghastly being as moving and entertaining as it is, that’s really saying something.

 


 

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