Fear Not the Jackal
Author: Miles DeMott
Publisher: Word Truck 2012
Price: $14.95 (paper)
Miles DeMott had considerable success with a self-published novel, “Family Meeting,” in 2010 and now is back with “Fear Not the Jackal.”
The new novel opens well and in a serious vein. On June 27, 1974, the novel’s narrator Chad Felder is in a tourist helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon with his family. Suddenly, a complete stranger grabs his sister Janine “by the waist of her bell-bottom jeans … and launch[es] them both through the wide open cargo door…her eyes wide with mortal terror.”
Thirty-five years later, Chad, in a failing second marriage, is approaching middle age. A successful real estate developer who specializes in strip malls, for him life is “lifestyle center after lifestyle center, lease upon lease . . . .”
Chad is a major contributor to the uglification of much of the modern South. He says, “I am not so much immune to the proliferation of commercial sprawl as responsible for it.”
But he remains aesthetically unconcerned. His motto is, echoing Gertrude Stein: “a mall is a mall is a mall.” A rose is a rose, true, but a mall is definitely not a rose.
In a small plane over Charlotte, North Carolina, Chad meets with a group of religious entrepreneurs—Charlotte was the home of Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker, one remembers—who want him as the idea man, the concept man, on a Christian religious experience theme park. The backers know him to be a planner who has developed “strip malls that tell a story.”
They have also chosen him because he graduated from seminary and was briefly a practicing preacher before losing his faith.
For a while it seems DeMott has moved to satire.
Chad lives in Atlanta among the pretentiously and irrelevantly named suburban developments such as Quail Ridge—no quail, each gated “community” with the obligatory guard house, no guard.
One is reminded of Walker Percy’s novel “Love in the Ruins,” in which the suburban hell is named Paradise Estates.
The theme park, which does actually get built, begins with “The Garden of Eden Experience” because as the ticket taker tells guests, “everything begins there!” In The Garden, there are an animatronic Adam and Eve, and dinosaurs, one wearing a saddle. The visitors then choose Old or New Testament routes. The Old has the Holy Moses Log Ride, the Heaven and Hell Roller Coaster, the Dark Night of the Soul anti-gravity wheel, and after Bethlehem, The Last Supper, where you can sit down at the table. The experience concludes at the Carousel of the Apocalypse.
Afterwards, patrons can snack at “the Canaan Café, the restaurant that multiplies the loaves and fishes to feed the masses.”
This seems like satire to me, and successfully so, but DeMott keeps changing the tone.
We meet Chad’s brother Thib, short for Thibodeaux, who lives, LIVES in a storage unit. Thib is the bad brother, the Cain figure, maybe, except it is Chad who asks, “am I my brother’s keeper?”, Cain’s line. Chad decides that, even though he knows he can never save Thib, who has become involved with drugs, pornography, blackmail, and gangsters, and is the subject of an undercover FBI investigation, he must continue to try.
DeMott has set a great many stories in motion. He needs to choose just a couple. Is this novel a realistic portrait of modern marriage, a satire on fundamentalism, a crime novel, with considerable sleuthing and chasing, a DNA investigation that reveals who is the father of whom or the story of a damaged family with too many destructive secrets?
DeMott is a natural fiction writer. His dialogue is convincing and his story moves. But the tone keeps shifting and he has set loose too many plotlines in this novel and is, finally, unsuccessful in gathering them all in hand.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”