This is the third of Nordan’s novels I’ve read–Wolf Whistle and Music of the Swamp were both books I very much enjoyed and found incredibly moving–and I went into this one fully prepared for Nordan’s literary gamesmanship. If you’ve never read Nordan, his “magical realism” can take you by surprise, and takes a bit of work to give oneself over into the logic of his work and world. And while that same kind of gamesmanship was at work in this novel, I found myself deeply frustrated by it, and ultimately felt that Nordan’s commitment to a particular aspect of his craft ultimately got in the way of the deeply emotional aspects of this novel. Nordan knows how to plumb the depths of the human heart, and he does it here, too; he just can’t get out of his own way in many places.
Nordan’s work always shows that he is fully versed in the myriad stereotypical tropes of the South and its literature, and in many ways his magical realism is a self-aware and ironic send-up of these tropes, so as to make the truths of his characters that much more significant and vital. It’s as if he sets out to make his works so bizarrely and intensely stereotypically Southern that we ultimately transcend both the Hollywood movie-stage and overly-romantic versions of the South and enter into a world more real, powerful, and truthful; in other words, a world that is, despite its strangeness, is more in line with the actual truth of life in the South and elsewhere. And while this is often done to great effect–and continues to be done to great effect in many places in this novel–the technique itself becomes obfuscating and confusing here.
For instance, we know from the opening pages that this novel concerns the murder of “two lovely children,” a murder that has been witnessed by “Hydro,” a mentally handicapped young man. Yet, as we move further into the novel, we learn about the children, we learn the details of the murder, and the “lovely children” seem neither lovely nor child-like. They are presented as something like a Hollywood Bonnie-and-Clyde, with black French berets and a predilection for solipsistic violence and abusive nymphomania. The “girl” is especially confusing, as Nordan’s descriptions of her physical self presents her as being a child from the waist up and some sort of perverse matron from the waist down, as if two different selves exist in her body. And maybe this is the point; maybe Nordan wants us to face the instability of identity or something of that sort, the ways in which who we are is defined by others, or something like that. And while this is a real possibility–the novel is very much interested in how popular culture, like comic books and pop music especially, shape how we understand ourselves and engage others–the bizarre, dreamlike way several characters are presented blurs any sort of real engagement with them and what truths they may hold. This is especially the case with the main plot, as it surrounds Hydro, his father, and the murder of the “two lovely children.” The character of the undertake (a sort of warmed-over Norman Bates) and the reveal of Hydro’s alter ego late in the book are similarly perplexing; at some point, Nordan’s technique just gets too far ahead of his purposes, and dream-like magical realism dissolves into bizarre nonsense that left me wondering if the book was worth finishing.
This is frustrating, as I thought several times of calling the book a failure and quitting; if I would have done that, I would have missed the many places where the book truly shines. At its best, The Sharpshooter Blues rehearses the tried-and-true territory of the interconnections between self, death, and sex (although a chapter devoted to a same-sex affair between two characters of no consequence to the novel on the whole seems shoe-horned in for no other purposes than checking an identity-politics box). The stories that spin off from the main plot are where the novel is strongest, and where Nordan’s ability to write black comedy that is achingly gorgeous and tragic and true via his magical realism technique shines brightest. A young brother and sister dealing with the consequences of their mother’s alcoholism and adultery and their father’s emotional distance is masterfully done, especially in a series of scenes connected to the children’s rescuing of half-drowned wild parrots that reveals a full complement of emotions inside the children. A lawman who confronts violence with the image of possible loss and present alienation from some of those whom he loves is powerful, and the stories of a self-created sharpshooter and his hoodoo-woman adoptive mother are wonderful, and the afore-alluded-to cuckold and his alcoholic wife are sad, beautiful characters. The main plot builds to a final scene of a funeral, and that may be one of the finest things Nordan ever wrote.
All this is to say, then: this is a good novel. But Nordan gets in his own way in several places here, keeping it from being a great novel. This is all the more frustrating because of the presence of some of his finest scenes and most intriguing characters.