There’s something incredibly rewarding about getting to watch a writer evolve in real time. Case in point: Gabriel Blackwell, whose first few books included memorable postmodern riffs on the works of Raymond Chandler and H.P. Lovecraft. Nearly all of Blackwell’s books to date have had some overarching thematic conceit — from the shorter works collected in Correction to the meditation on the film Vertigo in the novel Madeleine E.
All of that makes his latest novel Doom Town feel like an outlier, at least initially; here, the allusions have been pared back. Here, there doesn’t seem to be another artistic work lurking in the shadows, making its influence felt. The novel begins with the narrator and his wife shopping for decorative bowls, and the way that Blackwell’s sentences circle around, turning a day at the mall into the stuff of existential torment. Brian Evenson’s blurb alludes to Thomas Bernhard, whose influence can certainly be felt here.
Bernhard is certainly a factor here, but he’s not the only one. And slowly, the quotidian scene of a married couple shopping for home decor gives way and reveals something far bleaker, as the narrator ponders his role in the death of a dog — and hints at deep, deep fissures in his marriage, presumably as a result of this incident.
I hope I’m not getting too far off track. It’s just that this moment, this split second I’m talking about, is so important to what I’m trying to explain: The dog stood frozen at the curb for a moment, only for a moment, and then, devoid of that initial, more seemingly innocent impulse, it crossed the street or tried to cross the street sprinting, as though out of some secondary impulse, this one much stronger and springing quite naturally from a baser instinct, from, I would guess, the necessity fear provokes in all creatures to at least consider taking flight in the face of a threat, though in this case the flight was towards danger rather than away from it.
And then Blackwell takes things one step further and reveals just how bleak things actually are for this couple — bringing with it a profound sense of the bottom dropping out for these characters, for their family, and for the world in which they live.
Our narrator, we’ll eventually learn, is an academic — all of which makes his tendency to both overthink things and to digress in epic fashion feel entirely understandable. If Blackwell had just wanted to use the device of sprawling sentences to tell this story of familial trauma and psychological disquiet, it would have been effective in its own right. Instead, there’s an underlying reason for the prose’s sprawling tendencies. It works on both a plot level and a thematic level, and this tale of grief, frustration, and obsession is all the stronger for it.
by Gabriel Blackwell
Zerogram Press; 204 p.