"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
HERE’S THE LAMEST review equation in the world: Musician X + Filmmaker Y =Writer Z. So, forgive me this transgression (I just can’t help myself): Karen Russell is like some weird, perfect blend of singer-songwriter Neko Case and Studio Ghibli mastermind Hayao Miyazaki. Dreamy and gleeful and muscular, Russell, like these other artists, succeeds on her own terms: she’s a swaggering world-builder, a center-tent carnival barker, a wild-eyed curator of all things fantastic. Her half-mad tales give breath to an exuberant chorus of confused souls. And she’s not tied down to any genre. She summons influences as diverse as H.P. Lovecraft and Joy Williams, Shirley Jackson and Michael Chabon, Italo Calvino and Carson McCullers, Mark Richard and Ray Bradbury, and weaves it all — as only a young marvel can — into something wholly new, something majestic and real.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove is Russell’s third book, following debut story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and debut novel Swamplandia!, both widely recognized as stunning inventions. It features eight stories, each shot through with dizzying language, in which we’re introduced to lemon-munching vampires, silkworm-girls, seagull armies, apocalyptic pioneers, ex-presidents reincarnated as horses, the perilous practice of Antarctic tailgating, a massage therapist who inherits the memories of a tortured young veteran, and a scarecrow that haunts a posse of young bullies. Russell’s characters — always somewhere between tender and vicious — are lovingly, carefully rendered. Full of magic and myth, they’re our guides through the strangest and darkest stretches of Russell’s heaven-bright imagination. And they’re funny. Man, are they funny. They whimper and whelp and wail and beg to be danced with.
The title story concerns two vampires who, coming to understand that none of what’s believed to be true about vampires is actually true, have sought out relief all across the globe in everything from mint tea to jackal’s milk to Cherry Coke floats. They’ve discovered their oasis in Sorrento, Italy, at a dead nun’s lemonade stand: sinking their teeth into perfect Italian lemons relieves their thirst! Masquerading now as a typical nonno, narrator Clyde survived for years on human blood before meeting Magreb, who taught him the truth about their kind. Sunlight was fine. Garlic didn’t hurt them in the least. No need to sleep in a coffin. Human blood was not a necessity. At first, Clyde felt beautifully free, but now — older, unable to metamorphose into a bat like Magreb and having settled into a boring routine with her — he feels neutered, lost. In Russell’s hands, it all translates into a deeply human meditation on addiction and commitment.
“Reeling for the Empire” deals with a group of girls who have been given a tea that’s transformed them into silk-producers, a hybrid human/silkworm. They’re factory workers, overseen by an Agent who is willing to off them if they stop producing. The narrator, Kitsune, begins to understand the extent of their powers and knows they must reclaim their futures. When the Agent comes for them in the end, he sees white-faced girls with “sunken noses that look partially erased.” Having almost fully evolved, their eyes are “insect-huge” and their “[spines] and elbows are incubating lace for wings.” Kitsune launches herself at the Agent and gets “a thrilling sensation of what true flight will feel like, once we complete our transformation.” The story, like so much of Russell’s work, feels itself like a form of flying.
In “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979,” 14-year-old Nal is overwhelmed by the presence of an army of seagulls while trying to navigate the rocky terrain of being a kid with a charming older brother and a mother who has given up on life. When he discovers that the seagulls are hoarding talismanic objects from the townspeople in their nest, “pecking at squares of paper and erasing whole futures,” he’s shaken into a new awakening. Framed against a seagull invasion, Nal’s story is so much different (and better) than the coming-of-age slop you’re used to.
The collection slows down in the middle. “Proving Up,” about a family questing for land in an apocalyptic American West, features Russell’s trademark beautiful writing, but it’s a snoozer compared to the other thrilling stories here. And “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” in which ex-presidents reincarnated as horses dally around some maybe-heaven, feels like a one-note joke that drags on for too long.
“Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is breezy fun, though. Full of gutbuster lists and driven by a genuinely hilarious voice, it feels as if it could be plucked straight from Jon Stewart’s Naked Pictures of Famous People or Jack Pendarvis’s classic The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure. The narrator informs us that “a beer gut has made the difference between life and death at the blue bottom of the world.” Beginning a list of Antarctic tailgating necessities, he reminds readers to “make friends with your death”; otherwise, he jests, just “[cheer] for the Antarctic minke whales, like every other asshole.” “Apocalypse food,” he also tells us, “is appropriate for the Antarctic tailgate, the sort of stuff you’d find in a Cold War bunker: jerky, canned tuna, powdered milk, soups in envelopes.”
The strongest story here is “The New Veterans.” Beverly, a massage therapist, believes that bodies have “a secret language candled inside [them], something inexpressibly bright that can be transmitted truly only via touch,” and she’s challenged by a recent bill that’s been passed: Direct Access for US Veterans to Massage Therapist Services. Her first referral is Sgt. Derek Zeiger, who has a detailed tattoo of an Iraqi landscape on his back — soldiers, birds, cattle, blue sky, sun, palm trees, the Diyala River, the village of Fedaliyah, a telephone pole, and a red star. It’s a painting of his best friend’s death day. Russell makes it all feel like a particularly beautiful episode of The Twilight Zone, and she builds incredible tension as Beverly begins to literally rub out Zeiger’s worst war memories, taking them on as her own. It’s a haunting story, told in whispers and touches. Maybe it’s Beverly’s hands you can feel. Maybe it’s Zeiger’s horrible pain. Or maybe it’s just Russell, expert puppeteer, pulling you, making you bend and twist with “sad dog” Beverly and her new vet.
Closer “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” recalls vintage-era Stephen King. After finding a mutilated half-scarecrow half-doll that looks like Eric Mutis (nicknamed Eric Mutant), a missing classmate they used to bully, the boys of Camp Dark — Larry, Mondo, J.C., and Gus — are strangled by guilt and seek to be redeemed. In a flashback, they’re caught beating up Eric behind the school by the librarian, and narrator Larry Rubio tells us: “I think we needed that librarian to follow us around the hallways for every minute of every school day, reading us her story of our lives, her fine script of who we were and our activities — but of course she couldn’t do this, and we did get lost.” And lost is what they are and will remain, forever haunted by wormy-lipped Eric Mutant.
The stories are linked by a deep concern for time. In “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” Clyde says: “I once pictured time as a black magnifying glass and myself as a microscopic flightless insect trapped in that circle of night. But then Magreb came along, and eternity ceased to frighten me.” Led by Kitsune, the silkworm-girls in “Reeling for the Empire” wait for the perfect moment to attack instead of submissively succumbing to the wills of their less powerful master. “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” considers how the thieving seagulls “[warp] people’s futures into some new and terrible shapes.” The narrator of “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” stresses the importance of devoting several months of tailgating to an event that lasts 20 seconds, the defeat of Team Krill by Team Whale. In “The New Veterans,” Beverly marvels that “[the] same spine that has been inside her since babyhood is hers today, the exact same bones from the womb, a thought that always fills her with a kind of thrilling claustrophobia.” And the collection ends with Larry Rubio standing down in a hole with a picked-apart scarecrow and a mall-bought rabbit. He says (from where? the present?): “Somewhere I think I must be still be standing, just like that.”
Never heavy-handed, the stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove are imbued with notions of grace and redemption. “There is a loneliness,” vampire Clyde tells us, “that must be particular to monsters, I think, the feeling that each is the only child of a species.” The monsters here practice the frail magic of living with a wobbly vivacity, and Russell’s greatest gift is how she awakens them in our minds. While the stories aren’t religious, they overtake you like some mystical tidal wave. Russell’s prose is touched always with pain and wonder, her characters have an uncanny ability to access what Robert Walser called “the true truths,” and her plots are giddy and snap-wicked. On top of that, she’s hell-bent on raucousness. She’s a welder of broken hearts. She’s not afraid to make the page tremble.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
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