Book Review: Land of the Blind by Jess Walter

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Review By: Laurie Fundukian

Those who read my reviews know that I tend to become enamored with a writer, but perhaps don’t discover them upon their debut, as I’ve done with Gillian Flynn, and now with Jess Walter, whose popular Beautiful Ruins was reviewed here last year. So I tend to go backward into their bodies of work. Walter was a journalist, and his earlier work falls into the thriller and suspenseful crime genre. Needing some titles to download to my Kindle for a big trip this summer, I turned to one of his earlier novels, Land of the Blind. And I was not disappointed.

The book starts in Spokane, Washington with Caroline Mabry, who is a detective working her turn on the night shift—a schedule given to detectives who are burned out and ready to retire. But she’s only in her late 30s. She can’t put a finger on why she is in such a personal and professional slump. The night shift is when the freaks and poor souls show up, talking of UFO sightings and visions of Jesus and any number of out-there fantasies they want to tell detectives. In the midst of these, in stumbles Clark Mason, a man Carolyn deems very familiar (he wears an eye patch and is good looking), but can’t place. Carolyn is actually a secondary character in this novel, though the reader may think otherwise at first. Clark wants to confess to a murder, but he just can’t do it in an ordinary way, and refuses to name the victim. This murder hasn’t been discovered yet and he wants to spin it his own way, which makes him not very forthcoming. The detective can’t figure out if he is sane or evil or what, so she gives him some legal pads and Clark goes to town recalling his childhood (which will link to the murder victim). His was not an easy childhood, but a classmate, Eli, had it much worse. The reader is then treated to a rambling (befitting the voice this beaten-down man would have) history of life in a small town where bullies were kings and students who didn’t make a place for themselves were tortured.

Walter does an excellent job of writing about the utter despair that can come with the public-school experience: dodge ball, bullying, wedgies, fights, and drugs. Eli is a kid with a leg brace, dandruff, glasses, and more, and Clark is a good kid who gets wrapped up in trying to survive, conforming to the social behavior that is expected of him, and regretting that he is somewhat forced to be cruel to kids like Eli or be ostracized himself. At first, his confession seems to be no more than admitting to his character flaws, but that changes. Readers can see themselves in this book, and though we can’t go back to change our childhood behavior, it certainly makes us think about how it all shaped us today. This excerpt was particularly eye-opening (offered during a time in the novel when Clark was admiring the freedom that the “special ed” kids had in being themselves, because they really couldn’t help it):

“I think we forget sometimes the halting sameness of high school: each day is like the day before it, six periods of class in all the same places, lunch at the same table, the same jokes and asides and greetings from all the same kids, the same clothes and songs and dances, and if school is truly a preparation for life, it is mostly in this way, gearing us for the rigid schedule, the stifling patterns, the lack of variation that an adult strives for so that he can resent it the rest of his life. How much money do we pay for an education that will allow us to loop our necktie the same way each morning, to be given a regular parking spot to park our BMW every day, to buy a summer home so that even our vacations become routine? We are drilled in this unending sameness in high school, and only the insane and the inspired ever get past it.”

Eli got the school away from the sameness for a moment when he performed an unexpected athletic feat that made him a temporary (because young minds usually move on quickly) legend at the school. Though his books often fall within the crime/thriller genre, Walter does more: he often supplies readers with moments to question their own self-images and ask themselves just how far they’ve really come from the scared high school kid who wanted to be like everyone else but also desired to be special. But the great narrative on their school years doesn’t cover everything leading up to the murder at hand—Clark and Eli meet again as adults (Clark was given a lot of legal pads in the interrogation room).  They were never quite friends, but Eli saved his life, so he was owed, and being owed something by another human seems to qualify someone for a tragedy like no other social construction. The also novel plots a quiet path of revenge of a slow-burning type that is much more interesting than a mindless and quick extraction of the emotion. The meek should not be underestimated. Eli and Clark underestimate one another in this novel. Caroline also underestimates herself.

Interspersed with the long tales on the legal pads, the story follows Carolyn tracking down some leads, which are vague at first, but get very interesting (including tracking down the kingpin bully, the chilling and empty Pete, who was responsible for the eye injury and many tortures Eli lived through). As with most mysteries, the plot should not be revealed before the actual turning of the page, so that will not happen here. Early on, Carolyn discovers that the reason she finds Clark so familiar is that he ran for office the prior year, and the story behind all that ugliness is also revealed.

Walter is a master of intrigue and cutting narrative, though a few recollections were a bit long, including the painstakingly detailed scene describing the epic dodge ball game in which Eli showed what he was made of. But I haven’t read a novel in a long time that so tellingly reflects on what we are as children and how it can carry through in unexpected ways throughout our adulthood. Walter’s stories of school, friendship, and, later, murder are well-worth the long dodge ball story. I will next need to read his novel Over Tumbled Graves, in which Caroline is the lead character who is working a major murder case Spokane—perhaps it will provide insight on why she is so spent after 15 years on the job (and not yet 40 years old). Like Clark, I find that going back is quite intriguing.

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