In this novel by Sean M. Riley (Midnight at the Chicango, 2010), a visit from a mysterious spirit spurs a small-town factotum into a series of artistic projects.
Carl McDougal peaked early—an all-state athlete and ladies man in high school, the kind of guy other guys beg for tips. But it all came too easily, and after his great high-school career turned into a pretty good college one and a thoroughly uninspiring adulthood, Carl turned to booze. His marriage dissolved, his son Dominic disowned him and Carl wound up murdered in a sleazy motel by a one-night stand. Dominic, meanwhile, is trying to figure himself out when a spirit appears, just a patch of wavy heat lines—until it speaks. The story follows Dominic as he struggles to create art in small-town Nebraska, including writing and organizing an experimental theater piece, putting out a CD and writing fiction. Dominic spends most of the book coming to terms with his artistic life and resisting the advice of the visiting spirit, and readers not interested in stories about artists struggling to find the courage to make their art will likely lose interest. Overall, the writing features too little description of settings and characters, leaving the reader feeling rootless. But there are well-visualized moments—metal plates flipping inside an alarm clock, the swipe and whistle of a razor slicing hair. Some ideas in the story beg for a more fuller examination and dramatization, including the role of localism in regional artistic dialogues, but the novel seems to contain only symptoms—in addition to, possibly, being a symptom itself—of a disease, and no diagnosis. The narrative voice, like the main character, refuses to meet expectation, and in so doing, simply stops paying attention to the characters or their world. Some elements resonate, but the book seems overly concerned with the idea of art rather than the practice of it.
The reviewer says: “the writing contains too little description of settings and characters, leaving the reader feeling rootless.” If you’re feeling rootless after reading The Ghost of Carl based on the fact that there is too little setting, then we should probably question your roots. If you’re rooted in the stylistic nature of storytelling, then you probably won’t enjoy The Ghost of Carl. For too long, the sole description of the novel has been rooted in style. Many have been turned off by the writer who describes a tree for two paragraphs. I have been turned off by it too, and that’s why I wrote this book the way I did, but let’s set my personal preferences aside for a moment while we question the reviewer’s roots. In his review, he seems to be saying that there is only one way to write a novel as evidenced by his lone favorable comment “But there are well visualized moments”. Too bad, I say, some will appreciate the lack of nauseating detail, others will not. If no one appreciates this approach, then the world be damned I say. Is the author now required, based on historical precedent, to lay out a high degree of setting in every event of his novel, or is he allowed to allow the reader to provide setting?
In some ways, I believe it is a greater sacrifice to avoid setting and concentrate on story. In some ways, the author is showing off when he presents his stylistic vision of the world ensconced in detail. He is saying watch this while he engages in multi-syllabic wordplay to describe the swing set that the characters pass on their way to the next event. The author is saying, “see I can write wonderfully” and everyone but the true aficionado is turned off for a couple pages until the author gets back to the storyline. The author is trying to say that he belongs to the elite club of writers who write when he engages in his pages long description of setting. I don’t care if I ever belong to that club. I just wanted to write a story, a novel that I wanted to read. I’ll leave out author’s names, but there are some that obsess over their display of writing prowess to a degree that they forget the art of telling a story. We’ve all read them, the authors—even the great ones—who waste so much of our time describing the time, the place and the surroundings that by the time you get to the payoff you’re so exhausted by detail that you can’t help but be disappointed. Let me be clear, I have no problem with writers writing, but it’s not the only way to write. One can choose to limit his description for the purpose of pace and storytelling.
As for the line “too little description of characters,” I must say: “my God reviewer!??? What do you want?” I could go into scenes and dialogues and tell you where I differ with this reviewer, but there comes a time and a place where an artist must put his paintbrushes down and say I’ll let you decide on this one. It was a frustrating line to read.
“The book seems overly concerned with the idea of art rather than the practice of it.” How does one concentrate on the practice of art, as opposed to the idea of it, in a novel? One way, of course, would be to display that art. In The Ghost of Carl a play Dominic wrote called “The Boy” is prominently featured. The book that Dominic wrote Fate’s Tumbling Die is not written out in total, but its stylistic approach is covered. The notes of the music on the album are not written out, but the audience that listens to it at a listening party provides thorough reaction to it. The process of creating music is thoroughly covered before the listening party. The practice of creating art is also covered, to my mind, but I was mindful of the fact that delving too much into the creation of art would ruin the pace and damage the story. If the reviewer wants fuller realization on the creation of art, perhaps they would find more satisfaction in the “how-to” sections of the bookstore.
“Some ideas in the story beg for a more fuller examination and dramatization, including the role of localism in regional artistic dialogues, but the novel seems to contain only symptoms—in addition to, possibly, being a symptom itself—of a disease, and no diagnosis.” This is a weakness. The reviewer is correct on this note. I’m not interested in “regional artistic dialogues”. I got bored halfway through reading that sentence. I’ll leave that to writers who write romantic, little pieces about small town, America that no one is interested in reading. The Ghost of Carl happens to take place in small town, America, but the characters don’t think small town, or at least they don’t think small town, America enough for the reviewer. I think the reviewer wanted a quirky small town, America description that borders on insulting with the small town Americans engaging one another in their hick ways. I’ll leave that to those other writers.
“The narrative voice, like the main character, refuses to meet expectation, and in so doing, simply stops paying attention to the characters or their world.” All I can say to this is the reviewer must’ve stopped reading at a certain point. I realize that it is sour grapes to say that a reviewer is wrong, but I can think of no other way one could come to this assumption other than if the reviewer simply stopped reading at some point. I can also say that I knew that the fact that the main character refuses to meet expectation would be used in a review. There is a full realization of all of the characters in the end, and if the reviewer would’ve stayed around long enough to discover it, I think that he would’ve found it.
Finally, the most damning line in the review is the following: “readers not interested in stories about artists struggling to find the courage to make their art will likely lose interest.” The fact that the novel concentrates on an artist struggling to find the courage to make his art is true, but the reviewer neglects to mention that the novel is a comedy. I can’t say it’s funny, because that’s a term relative to the reader, but I can tell you that The Ghost of Carl not as dry as the reviewer would suggest with that line. It’s not a how-to, paint by numbers type of book of artistic creation. It’s a story about a man who happens to love art and artistic creation, but it’s also about the struggle to gain a sense of life and love, and what makes the human mind tick…all from the perspective of a semi-normal man, in a semi-normal life, seeking to understand the normal.