Awaking the Inner Dog in Whale Harbor
A really good story can be really strange
by Jeanne McDonald
The spine on the cover of N. M. Kelby’s new novel, Whale Season (Shaye Areheart Books, $23) proclaims: “a really good story.” Which is true. It is a really good story—funny, bold, irreverent, and so compelling that, in some places, reading it seems like barreling down a steep hill without brakes.
Also on the spine is a picture of Jesus. Winking. Yes, Jesus is winking. Though actually, the wink doesn’t truly reflect the nefarious character of the Jesus in the book. That Jesus is more often glowering or, as the hapless character Leon puts it, Jesus stares at people with “some sort of X-ray vision, like the kind you can buy in the back of X-Man comic books, like the kind you can use to look at girls’ underwear.” Worse, we find out early on that this particular Jesus is a serial killer. So why can’t the characters in this book figure it out as soon as we do? Maybe it’s because, as Leon explains, the Florida State Highway Patrol picks up approximately six thousand versions of Jesus a year, so Floridians are pretty much used to them.
However, this one seems more authentic than most, with scraggly beard, scarred forehead and puncture wounds on the backs of his hands. He enters the whaleless town of Whale Harbor on Christmas Eve, wearing only a sheet and driving a forty-foot American Dream recreational vehicle complete with two air conditioners, two satellite dishes, and real marble floors in the kitchen; and Leon, the owner of a used car lot that boasts only two vehicles, wins it from him in a poker game. A bonus is that the lumpy mattress in the RV is stuffed with packets of money.
One of the technical problems with this novel is that Jesus seems to know things he couldn’t possibly know, being a stranger in town. This unexplained power gives him a mystical aura, yet the author never reveals how he has gleaned such information. And a surfeit of characters, many of whom seem like afterthoughts, makes the already complicated plot even more opaque. For example, into the usual grit-lit mix of kooky southern characters, the author tosses Bender, the town’s mayor/bartender. Bender’s southern affliction is that he likes to bark like a dog—any dog, you name it. When Bender officiates at a funeral without a corpse, he chooses the voice of a golden retriever. “You may ask why I bark at a time like this,” he says. . . “I believe it is a form of prayer. I bark to honor my inner dog.” Then he asks the congregated mourners to unleash their own inner dogs in respect to the absent loved one, and a chorus of barks goes up, a sound the author notes that “sounds a lot like feeding time at the Humane Society.”
Then there’s Dagmar, the red-haired owner of the Dream Café and suffering-in-silence ex-wife of Leon. She left him after the death of their son, and although the two still have feelings for each other, they are hesitant to express them.
The sweetest character in the book is Jimmy Ray, a black blues singer who may or may not be Dagmar’s father. For some bizarre reason, Jimmy Ray takes a liking to Jesus and invites him to stay at the house with him and Dagmar. And although almost everyone in town senses a frightening aura of evil about Jesus, they let him stay, while Jesus entertains fantasies on how he might or might not murder certain people. Only Dagmar has enough sense to turn a glass marked with Jesus’ fingerprints over to the sheriff, Trot Jeeter, who figures into the plot mainly because, as a single man in a town with a large deficit of marriageable women, he yearns for both Dagmar and Carlotta, newcomer and current girlfriend of Leon. “The problem with Sheriff Trot Jeeter is not that he’s unattractive,” claims the omniscient narrator, “he’s just unremarkable…Through the years he’s grown comfortable in his absolute lack of distinction, the unnerving way he sometimes fades from memory while he’s still in the room.” But it’s Trot who finally does something concrete about the suspicious visitor. Trot’s inquiries and internet searches turn up information linking Jesus to the double murder of an elderly couple who just happened to own a forty-foot American Dream recreational vehicle complete with two air conditioners, two satellite dishes, and real marble floors in the kitchen.
Not everybody survives in this wacky novel, and Jesus isn’t the only crazy character in Whale Harbor, but it’s one of those books where you just hold on and enjoy the ride, even when it takes a few wrong turns.