Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hmmmm hm hm hmmmm

"Kt -- kl, va, va, tk-tk, hr'wo-gep-gep-gep" is some of the scintillating dialogue of the title character in Daniel Kraus' Scowler, winner of this year's Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production of books for children and young adults. It's the second time this author/narrator/production team won: the first was in 2012 for Rotters. Knowing the author's predilection for horror, I was prepared for the worst ... but I just can't imagine the worse. This was chilling.

Nine years before the start of the novel -- in 1972 -- Ry Burke sent his father to prison. Marvin had spent Ry's lifetime physically and mentally abusing his wife and son, but when he sews his wife Jo Beth to the sheets (for daring to earn a little income from dressmaking) -- from which she is rescued by her 10-year-old son -- the family, including Ry's toddler sister Sarah, attempts escape. On a freezing night, Marvin -- who has already struck the boy in the head with a baseball bat -- stalks Ry into a dark glade where the only thing that saves the boy is the conversation and companionship of three toys: Mr. Furrington, a plush bear; a plastic Jesus Christ; and a humanoid folk-art figure crafted of metal parts, Scowler. At the urging of Scowler, Ry plunges his sharp metal legs into his father's neck, ensuring that he is rescued and Marvin is jailed.  There is no doubt that Ry is injured both physically and mentally, but when his mother throws away his toys, he is able to man up and try and help her run the family's isolated Iowa farm.

Now that he's graduated from high school, Ry is at that place where he knows he should leave, but can't figure out how or where to go. When a disheveled stranger appears at the end of their drive, the Burkes invite him in, only to discover that he's escaped from a nearby prison -- a prison, he informs them, that also houses Marvin Burke. The stranger escaped because a meteorite destroyed the prison, so the family has real reason to believe that Marvin will soon be back to claim his farm and -- in his perverted way -- his family.

And so he does, arriving at approximately the same time as another meteor crashes to earth on the Burke farm. For the next 24 hours, Marvin terrorizes his family in a variety of unspeakable ways and Ry tumbles into madness (caused by his proximity to the meteorite's magnetic field?) -- now believing that his three inanimate friends are back to help him once again. Yet Ry's madness is now as violent as his father's and we are never certain if he wishes to help or destroy his mother and sister.

This book went too far for me. There's no doubt that violent families exist and that violence begets violence but the descriptions here verged on the edge of violent porn for me. The passages are lengthy, the blood flow and the emotional degradation wallow in the details, and it just seemed unending. At one point, Marvin shaves Ry's head (so that he will mirror his father) to which the boy is a willing participant, and I felt like a grubby little observer to an overly personal interaction. Where Kraus describes Ry freeing his mother from the stitched prison of her bedsheets, it was just more intimate information than I needed to hear in a book published for teens.

At the same time, the depiction of a family that deals with a dominant abuser seems utterly authentic. An accommodating intimacy as wife attempts to appease husband, a curious young child who doesn't remember her parent's violence, and a son whose only recourse seems to be to become his father.

Kirby Heyborne channels Kraus' prose again, and he is pretty excellent. I'm not his biggest fan, but he really rises to the occasion here. His light, dare-I-say-callow voice is transformed into several surprising characters: the deep, gravelly menace of Marvin who is most threatening when he hums tunelessly (see post title), the serene delivery of Jesus Christ, the pip-pip English accent of Mr. Furrington, and a strong yet fearful (but not femmy) Jo Beth. Ry's transformation from terrified 10-year-old to terrifying 19-year-old is very clear in Heyborne's narration. And then there's Scowler, which Heyborne reads with the ease and confidence of someone reading straightforward dialogue. It's really masterful.

Heyborne's experience as a narrator is demonstrated in his command of the pacing of the novel. There is a high level of tension sustained in this story, but Heyborne never lets it control him. Tension ebbs and then builds through his voice, authentic and consistent dialogue, and a varied pace that holds us in suspense and then releases us (but not much).

I've enjoyed the last few Heyborne narrations I've listened to, maybe it's time to move on from my "dislike." He's demonstrated he has the chops.

Publisher Listening Library created a couple of peeks "inside" the audiobook that are pretty interesting: An interview with Kraus and Heyborne talking about he came to read Scowler. I was surprised to learn that Heyborne only met Kraus at the 2012 Odyssey reception honoring Rotters. Although, why am I surprised? Why would these two meet? When I was on Amazing Audiobooks, Listening Library always took us out to lunch and invited an author to join us. While we would talk audiobooks with these individuals, I don't think I ever even asked if they had met "their" narrators. How dumb was that?

[Perhaps the most famous meteorite in the United States, the Willamette Meteorite was found near where I live and now resides at the American Museum of Natural History. This photograph, taken by herval, was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Scowler by Daniel Kraus
Narrated by Kirby Heyborne
Listening Library, 2013.  11:12

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