Mr. Shivers

Mr. Shivers/ Robert Jackson Bennett

Orbit Books, 2010

“I hope I see you again,” he said.

“You won’t,” Dexy said.  “Boys like you are always running off chasing one thing or another. They never know when to sit still.”

Terry Weyna introduced me to this debut novel by Robert Jackson Bennett.  Mr. Shivers is a dark—very dark—fantasy set during America’s Great Depression of the 1930s.

In the southwest, deep in the throes of the dust bowl, Marcus Connelly rides the rails and searches for the strangely scarred man who murdered his young daughter.  Along the way, he takes up with three men, all of whom have lost someone to the scarred man, the one the hobos call “Mr. Shivers.”

Mr. Shivers is a quest, a road trip.  Bennett’s sparse, precise prose lets our memories and imaginations fill in much from that era.  Terry thought it read, at times, like Steinbeck, and it certainly does in terms of the subject and the situations in which people find themselves.  I thought it also read like Ray Bradbury.  As we follow Connelly and his companions, we meet traditional quest characters; a fortune-teller, a corrupt sheriff, three witches who live in a wood, but Bennett blends these with his own vision, with myth and American folklore to make them both familiar and original.

The suspense comes not from a sense of unknowing—it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen—but from wondering which point, for Connelly, is the one of no return.  In each episode of this very episodic book people tell Connelly to turn back, to forsake the course of action upon which he is set.  Which chance is his last chance?  Is it his meeting with the sheriff in the forest?  His encounter with a green-eyed girl child in the bucolic small town?  When he finds the crescent wrench in his pocket, his final confrontation with Pike in the mountains, or even later, at the riverbank, in the book’s final pages?  Throughout the book Connelly has talked as if his vengeance quest is a there-and-back-again journey, but the reader knows it is not.  The choice, to go forward or go home, is his, all his, and his alone. 

Mr Shivers is grim, shocking and elegiac, a book of choices, of turning wheels and transitions, of change, played out against the elegantly rendered backdrop of an iconic time of despair and desperation.

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