Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Poppy Z. Brite - The Lazarus Heart
With his fourth novel, Poppy Z. Brite turns to the Crow mythos established by James O'Barr. I can't claim any familiarity with that series, but I have been a fan of Brite ever since reading Swamp Foetus, Wrong Things, and Drawing Blood, so I headed into The Lazarus Heart quite eagerly. Alas, while it possesses many of Brite's usual strengths and themes, it is a far weaker work than any of those I'd previously enjoyed.
Joseph Lethe has earned the moniker the Bourbon Street Ripper from his crusade against Them. They, those who violate the laws of gender, are "alien, viral" (p. 10). They are not human, and he hunts them down, mutilates them, and slays them. Bennny DuBois became one of his victims, and Benny's lover, Jared Poe was wrongly put to death for the murder. Now Jared has returned, as characters in these Crow novels seem wont to do. He and Benny's sister (once brother), Lucrecre DuBois must find this Ripper. And must destroy him. Into this situation is added Frank Gray, a detective terrified of his fellow officers discovering his homosexuality and now assigned to the latest, horrific killing.
The Lazarus Heart is a far more plot focused book than Drawing Blood, possessing none of that book's lifelike sprawl. Lethe's mind is too warped for him to live anything even remotely resembling a normal life. We only see him when he's got another victim in his power or as he plans his next strike. He is not alone in having no life outside the plot. That's easy to understand for Jared, who quite literally does not have a life outside the plot. But Lucrece too lives only for the comfortless understanding that there is still something left for her to do before she can finally let go and follow her twin (p. 120); in other words, until her role in the plot is fulfilled. It's only Frank that escapes the plot's tight confines, and so he quickly became my favorite part of the book.
The problem is that, while The Lazarus Heart is a very plot focused book, it simply does not have that much plot. Most of its length is pretty much a furious waiting game. Jared and Lucrece exist for nothing but to bring Lethe to justice, but Jared only starts to act proactively towards that goal at the novel's end. Until then, he heads off to extract vengeance on the cops and DA that sent him to die while he and Lucrece wait for the crow to do their deducing for them. As a detective, you would be forgiven for thinking that Frank, at least, might be able to take more concrete steps towards Lethe, but he spends the book wandering from crime scene to crime scene until Lethe decides to shove his face in the truth.
The supernatural aspect fails to really liven things up or give them any more depth. Early on, Benny and Lucrece speak to Jared about death and art:
"Because it isn't enough to appreciate the dead," Benny said. "To simply steal their likeness and call it art. There has to be an – "
" – understanding," Lucrece said, and Jared realized their habit of finishing each other's sentences was beginning to give him the creeps.
"Any genuine aesthetic of the dead requires, no, demands that the artist treat them as something more than mere objects. They must be seen and portrayed as dynamic opposites of life, not empty vessels devoid of anything but the power to make us nervous, afraid of our own morality." (p. 61)
It's an interesting (and well stated) idea of death's role in art, and Brite certainly lives up to it in Swamp Foetus. But he doesn't live up to it in the book in which it's stated. Jared's dead, but we never get too much of a sense of that. Despite his death, he basically acts like a really pissed off person; his attitude could have sufficed perfectly if he'd been simply left for dead instead. The Crow elements inspire no real awe or terror; they are simply the mechanism by which the plot is made possible and thrown into motion.
In the absence of real forward motion or the powerfully supernatural, the book is mostly taken up by flashbacks. Thankfully, too, because it's when rewinding before their current race to wait for Lethe to reveal himself that Brite's characters have space to breathe, space to be themselves and live and interact in all the wonderful ways that characterized Drawing Blood. Jared and the twins' meeting is an awesome and heartfelt mixture of lust and theatricality, reminisced about with all the power of love. Frank's struggles with himself and his sexuality – his witnessing of openly gay cops being shamed and ruined for it, his doing nothing – is powerful. Even the minor scenes with one off characters, which aren't flashbacks but are included here because they aren't focused on the plot's mad nowhere dash, are successful; Brite needs only a few words to summon life out of the pages.
Finally, there is the matter of Brite's prose. There aren't as many simply brilliant lines or images here as there are in some of his other works, but that's not to say that the writing is weak by any means. Brite quickly and deftly sets scenes and twists the reader's emotions, and his unflinching eye makes the book's most devastating moments truly sickening. Much of his best writing comes when he describes the oncoming storm, Hurricane Michael: Michael turns, dispassionate as cancer, unstoppable as fate, its silver-white back turned to heaven and its bruise-dark belly laid across the face of an angry, impotent world. And a terrible, raging night comes to the living and the dead of New Orleans (p. 191).
The Lazarus Heart is not nearly as strong as Drawing Blood, and its plot is weak. Still, Brite's prose and characters give the book heart and punch. This is far from where I'd start with Brite's reading, but it should prove a fairly entertaining read to any of the man's fans.