Daryl Gregory,
(Del Rey, 2008)

Every once in a while, a novel comes along that impresses you with its strong, smart prose and characters. Even better is one that slowly, slyly, teases you along a path of steady good humor and well-paced action, until suddenly you realize you're being led down a garden path by the author, and your expectations are suddenly turned on their collective head. And that's when you realize the book you're reading just got that much better. Such is the case with Daryl Gregory's impeccable first book, Pandemonium.

Taking place in a fascinating alternative timeline where Eisenhower died in his first term and inexplicable cases of demonic possession have become a fact of life, Pandemonium tells the story of Del Pierce, possessed at age 5 by the entity known as the Hellion and whose treatment, instead of curing him, effectively trapped the demon in his head for two decades. The novel picks up Del's story just after he has come to this realization, and follows him on his travels as he searches for a cure to his condition. Del's quest takes him across the country and back again, from a conference of possession researchers to a remote lake in the New York countryside, from a Manhattan apartment to Del's mother's basement, and finally from there to a lonely room in the American heartland that may be the key to everything.

The events of the novel are engaging and surprising, and Gregory relates them in crisp, extremely visual prose. The pages are populated with vivid characters and unexpected surprises at nearly every turn, crossing an America seemingly flooded with Jungian archetypes as filtered through the popular culture of the last 70 years. The book itself is a pop-culture soup of allusions and references, almost a mash note to SF and fantasy fans -- or more to the point, a mash-up note, taking on and blending everything from the work of A.E. van Vogt to comic-book heroes to an actual appearance by a demon-possessed Philip K. Dick. Gregory makes regular, sly asides both broad and subtle, some so obscure that unless you're very well read in genre fiction they'll fly right by you (one of the best ones for me was an unexpected reference to Last Call by Tim Powers). It's a testament to Gregory's talent that none of these moments feel forced or shoehorned in, but instead flow naturally out of conversations or from the narrative itself.

Another thing Gregory does well is provide a sense of place throughout the novel. Too often contemporary American fantasy short-changes the reader on setting; not so with Gregory. He starts off in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, and he has clearly either spent his childhood there or done his homework extremely well, because he correctly names places, regional quirks and TV shows that were all very familiar to this former Chicago native. And even if you're not from Chicago, you will feel grounded in Del's surroundings almost immediately.

Gregory is just as good with character; Del and his supporting cast -- his mother, his brother Lew, the complicated walking contradiction of Mother Mariette -- all come across as believable human beings in their own right. When they trade quips, it sounds like conversation, not a sitcom. And when Del and Lew get serious with each other, you can feel the push and pull of fraternal affection in every word between them, even when things between them are left unsaid -- especially then.

The climax of the novel, which takes place in the wake of several major revelations and reversals (and Gregory pulls these off just as masterfully as he does everything else), sees the various loose ends tied up -- if not into a neat bundle, then into an acceptable one. That the end is slightly messy is I think to Gregory's credit; he trusts the reader enough to understand that life is never a neat and tidy package, no matter how much closure we do or don't get. There is always more work to be done, and some wounds are very, very hard to heal. Del's fate is a particularly heartbreaking object lesson in this concept, and Gregory is to be commended for driving this message home in the way that he has. For any novelist a book like this would be a considerable accomplishment; that this is Gregory's first novel makes the accomplishment all the more impressive. He's definitely one to watch.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Jay Whelan

23 April 2011

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