Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bringing Back the Dead: Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips

Quiet Dell
By Jayne Anne Phillips
Review by Derek Harmening

This Armistice Day, I stumbled on a haunting photo series that rendered iconic black-and-white photos from history—the hydrogen bomb, the Hindenberg explosion, the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc—in full color.  The images, which to my brain have always belonged to some distinct Other Time, appear to have been snapped just yesterday.  I stared at these photos and felt the past reaching out to me, brushing my arm, reminding me that no matter how many years distance us, we can never truly escape what once was.

Jayne Anne Phillips’ Quiet Dell is like one of those photos.  Soft-spoken yet urgent, it is a full-color snapshot of a dark hour in a dark time, and we readers find ourselves immersed in its reality.

When she was little, Phillips’ mother told her about the Depression-era murders of Quiet Dell, West Virginia—about Harry Powers, the enigmatic gentleman who corresponded with lonely widows through an epistolary friendship society, promising them wealth, monogamy, and happiness for the rest of their days.  Once he’d cultivated their trust, Powers murdered them.

Phillips never forgot the story, nor did she stop thinking about the victims silenced by the crimes committed more than eighty years ago.  Quiet Dell is a resurrection of sorts, a pastiche of real and imagined relationships (of the entire cast, only four characters are purely fictional), photographs, letters, and transcripts lifted verbatim from old newspapers and trial coverage.  It’s also an empathetic glimpse at the last days of one doomed family, in particular: the Eichers of Park Ridge, Illinois.

The first part of the novel follows the Eichers in the months leading up to their deaths.  It’s fairly disturbing as a reader to enter into an intimate relationship with characters you know will soon perish, and that’s exactly what Phillips expects.  She cultivates convincing personalities for the widowed Asta and her children Grethe, Hart, and Annabel.  We are made privy to their struggles, their ambitions, their hopes and dreams, and in only fifty pages we feel as though we know the private hearts of each family member.

Once Asta begins receiving bouquets of flowers and letters from the charming Harry Powers, though, a sense of dread steadily pervades.  The Eichers are compelled toward their inevitable fate, and to perhaps the most climactic and heart-wrenching scene of the entire book.

Enter Emily Thornhill, a fictional reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Quiet Dell’s unequivocal heroine, who, along with photographer Eric Lindstrom and the Eichers’ banker and friend William Malone, follows the revelations, capture, trial, and fate of Harry Powers.

The final product is a well-intentioned but somewhat disjointed book.  Perhaps that’s because it’s trying to be too many things to too many people.  Though deftly plotted at first, the book begins to lag in spite of itself.  Once Harry Powers is taken into police custody (very early on), there’s a clear pathos at work: we readers are meant to despise Powers at all costs.  Though it’s been compared to In Cold Blood for superficial reasons, Quiet Dell diverges from Truman Capote’s approach in that it doesn’t make much effort to understand or empathize with its antagonist.  Some attention is given to Powers’ psychology and the possible origins of his self-hatred, but it’s difficult to sustain three hundred more pages of the novel when all conclusions have been drawn so early.  Once it’s made clear things can only end one possible way, there’s nothing to do but wait...and wait.

In all that waiting there’s plenty to whet the literary appetite: the actual letters written by Harry Powers, the droll and charming Eric Lindstrom who grounds some otherwise feathery scenes, the trial transcript in the final pages.  But these are constantly offset by imaginings which feel tacked on at best and forced at worst.  One running thread, Emily Thornhill’s illicit affair with William Malone, springs up almost out of thin air, and the endless affections they heap on one another ring uncharacteristic.  The whole thing seems like a device—using William Malone’s real-life proximity to the family to grant Emily access to certain historical scenes.  Very late in the book, Phillips introduces yet another extraneous plot as a kind of redemptive symbol, but by then there’s not enough time left for it to naturally develop.

For all its flaws, Quiet Dell still has so much going for it.  It’s a beautiful tribute, and part of an answer to the question of whether we bear responsibility, as readers and writers, to the dead.  When those lost to us can no longer speak, is it up to us, who possess their stories, to chronicle them?  Is this treatment a privilege of the deceased, or an obligation of the living?  Whatever the answer, I find myself very sympathetic to Phillips’ compulsion to breathe life into a poor, misfortunate family all but forgotten some eighty years hence.

In a recent NPR interview, Phillips said of the Eichers, “The tragedy of their loss was somehow answered for me in the process of writing them.  They became real to me and alive and saved, in a sense.”

At the bottom of it all, that’s what writing is about.  Who among us would not use our words to save someone, if we could?

Derek Harmening graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2011 with a degree in English, and then from the Denver Publishing Institute with a certificate in publishing.  He currently works at the Book Cellar in Chicago.  His work has appeared in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s undergraduate magazine Laurus and on the Chicago Artists Resource website.

1 comment:

  1. I am currently reading Quiet Dell which is one of the best books I've read in a while. :) It's one of those books which draw you in and you get completely lost in the characters.