1:22 pm
Mon July 26, 2004

Visits From the Drowned Girl

Can you enjoy a book, if you don't like the characters.

Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Nicki's commentary.]

It was a typical customer encounter for me: "I don't want," she said, "to read about a bunch of nasty people I don't like." I just nodded and led her to the "books about nice people you'd like to have as neighbors" section.

Okay, we don't really have a "nice people" section. I think the number one reason that our customers tell me they loved a book is because they loved the main character. And the number one reason they don't like a book is because the characters are people they don't like, and don't want to know. Many people would rather read a so-so book about people they like (or people like them), than a truly good book about people that make them uncomfortable, or even angry.

It stems, I suppose from the same impulse that makes people always order the same thing in restaurants. It's a comfort issue. I do not need to "like" the characters in the books I read, but I do need to be able to believe in them. I like to be challenged by a story. I like to have my applecart upset.

Which brings me to Steven Sherrill, a wonderful author whose books are, well, difficult to convince people to buy. His first novel, "The Minotaur takes a Cigarette Break" was all about a Greek myth that worked as a fry-cook in central North Carolina. Not your usual cup of tea but by god it was beautifully written story about the universal isolation we all feel. Sherrill's new book is Visits from the Drowned Girl, and it is also fantastic. I don't know if I'll convince anyone else to read it and find that out, but it is one of the most complex and disturbing stories I've read this year.

Benny Poteat is a "tower jockey"--the guy you call when something needs to be fixed somewhere way up high. Which is what he is doing one day when, as he hung suspended 200 feet in the air on a power company tower, he happens to look down at the rain-swollen river below just in time to see a girl deliberately walk into the rapids and drown herself.

Now, there isn't much Benny could do from where he was. But as soon as he gets himself down, he drives to the spot he saw the girl. Morbid curiosity, perhaps--he knows there isn't any chance he'll be able to find her alive. What he does find is a video camera set up to record her final steps, and a knapsack full of other video cassettes--all obviously recorded by the girl, left as a kind of extended suicide note.

What would you do? I would have done the sensible thing and called the police. But Benny, who is a little bit creepy, does not. Driven by the same not-quite-nice curiosity, he takes the videos home to watch them.

Since Benny doesn't care for the dead girl, his interest in the whole incident is voyeuristic, a response he rationalizes with the videos---this girl obviously wanted SOMEONE to watch her die. But what does it mean to watch someone die? It is a question that worries at him, circling around in his mind as often as he reruns the tapes. As I said, not a really nice character. In fact, if I were to meet Benny at our corner gas station, I'd stay far away from him. But the beauty of Sherrill's book is that I was absolutely convinced that there was a Benny Poteat out there, somewhere. And I spent a few restless nights wondering about him, and about what it really means to watch someone die.

Visits from the Drowned Girl wasn't comfort reading, and I didn't attempt to suggest it to the lady who only wanted nice people in her books. But I'm more than glad I read it, and I'm still on the look out for the daring reader willing to take a chance on it.