Dead On

The Church of Dead Girls. By Stephen Dobyns. (Metropolitan Books, New York; 388 pages. $23/hardcover). The dead eyes peer out from milk cartons and billboards. America's shameful parade of missing and murdered children grows longer every day. The predators have been especially hard at work in Central New York state, where author Stephen Dobyns had lived and taught for the better part of the last decade. Thirteen-year-old Sara Anne Wood is believed buried in a shallow grave somewhere in the Adirondacks. Convenience clerk Heidi Allen may have been tossed into Lake Ontario. Only pieces of 12-year-old Qiana Dickerson turned up in the backyard and basement of a Syracuse, NY pizza delivery man last year. And two Dryden High School cheerleaders were brutally slain a year ago by a next-door neighbor, who then dismembered them and spread their remains through a Chenango County forest preserve. It's enough to turn your stomach, but what's worse (what could possibly be worse?) is the nagging thought: If these guys down the street are capable of this, what about my other neighbors? Worse yet, what about me? That ever-present "colored lens of suspicion" lies at the troubled heart of Stephen Dobyns' new novel, The Church of Dead Girls. Like an Ox-Bow Incident for the Nineties, Dobyns' novel explores the ramifications of mob mania, whether the mob consists of Marxist dissenters or overzealous Neighborhood Watch groups. At first glance, the novel concerns the kidnapping, murder and mutilation of three small town teen-age girls, but it's also about bullies vs. victims and vigilantes vs. scapegoats. Consequently, the novel reflects, however indirectly, on those social bugaboos that never seem to go out of style: racism, sexism and ageism. Dobyns' primary concern is the pervasive paranoia, and the resulting public fury, caused by the abductions. Such suspician shreds the fabric of society at every level. Daughters suspect fathers, students suspect teachers, brothers suspect brothers, neighbors suspect neighbors, citizens suspect the police, and practically everybody suspects an Algerian-born professor who heads an informal Marxist reading group called Inquiries into the Right (IIR). The dark-skinned, slightly crippled, cane-carrying, beret-wearing socialist history teacher Houari Chihani is but one of the many well-drawn characters who populate Dobyns' fictional upstate New York collegetown of Aurelius. There's also Barry Sanders, a shy, shades-bedecked albino and closet homosexual; Aaron McLean, a disturbed IIR member bent on solving the murder of his slutty mother; Harriet Malcomb, Aaron's sexual "soldier;" Hark Powers, a mean-spirited mechanic, missing one ear; Jaime Rose, a swishy beautician who knows too much for his own good; Allen and Donald Malloy, physician and pharmacist brothers who belong to the first family to lose a girl; and brothers Jesse and Shannon Levine, skateboard Marxists with identical goatees. And there's a killer with meticulously trimmed fingernails. A motley crew to be sure, and each character carries enough baggage to weigh him or herself down in the court of public suspicion. Ryan Tavich is a policeman who pumps iron and a variety of single women with equal regularity. His tight-lipped nature leads his lovers to dub him "Old Silent," behind his back. Franklin Moore is a young widower and workaholic newspaper editor who interviews everyone in town--from the exotic, controversial Chihani to the bag boys at the local grocery. When Moore's teen-age daughter Sadie frowns upon her father's new relationship with Aaron's therapist sister Paula, the 14-year-old strikes up a close friendship with the narrator, a bow tie-wearing bachelor who teaches grade school biology and keeps jars of specimens on his kitchen shelf. No one stands above suspicion in Dobyns' craftily woven narrative. As the characters interact, it seems each and every one has a past filled with sexual indiscretions, unpredictable violence or anti-social attitudes. Although the book is being marketed as a thriller (the Stephen King blurb calls it "a tale for a moonless night, a high wind and a creaking floor"), only the most patient King fans will worship this Church. Partly because there are so many characters and factions to introduce, the exposition drags on for 110 pages before the first abduction even takes place. Thankfully, Dobyns spices early chapters with a bomb scare, a battered windshield and the town's reaction to the unsolved strangling of Aaron's nymphomaniac mother. A few fascinating--yet revolting--scenes set the tone for things to come, including a dicey escapade of sexual exhibitionism and an ear-biting episode far bloodier than Mike Tyson's infamous infraction. Once the girls start disappearing, however, the novel grinds into high gear, and Dobyns proves himself a master of action as well as a shrewd creator of characters. A booze-fueled act of cemetery vandalism by the IIR students and a darkly humorous Halloween Hell Night stand out as vivid illustrations of a town gone mad. As the author of the "Saratoga Series," nine formulaic mysteries solved by hotel dick Charlie Brasdshaw, Dobyns is well-practiced in the deft spreading of red herrings. And as the author of nine volumes of poetry, Dobyns also knows how to create atmospheric overtones which lend his prose a consistent aura of emotion--in this case, growing fear and fanatacism juxtaposed against the usually quiet, pastoral, autumnal setting. The narrative picks up speed when a third girl is snatched and the pages whirr by like wind-whipped Lake Effect snowflakes, as the cop and the journalist lead a concerned parents group up a slippery hill on the heels of the kidnapper. Flashlights dot and dart along the sloped woods, as the action culminates in a lightning-paced scene involving gunplay, a mysterious briefcase and a sharpened meat cleaver. The Church of Dead Girls has its flaws: after an inriguing, brilliantly-written, imagistic prologue depicting the ritualization of the victims' bodies, the slow-going exposition will be a real bringdown for some readers. Those who hang with it, however, will have their patience richly rewarded in the twists and turns leading to the dramatic climax. But other readers will find themselves unable to suspend disbelief when two key characters--first Sadie Moore then her father Franklin--appear unnaturally unperturbed by two crucial kidnappings. In order to advance his story, Dobyns keeps those characters functioning, when in real life, close friends and parents of kidnap victims collapse in panic. Those minor mis-steps aside, however, the author's message mirrors Alfred Hitchcock's (as summarized by critic Roger Ebert): "You're not ever safe anywhere and you think you're not part of it, but you are." That disturbing theme bubbles just below the surface of The Church of Dead Girls, as does the awful knowledge of the real-life abductions that have plagued upstate New York and the nation. As a result, Dobyns' novel rises well above the entertainment level of most thrillers. Much more than a mere "whodunit," his story of unbridled suspicions reminds us all how fear can destroy individuals and entire communities, and how it destroys not only from without, but also from within. SIDEBARAn Author's Personal Exorcism?The Church of Dead Girls is the first major work by writer Stephen Dobyns since he left Syracuse University in 1995 following his suspension from the English faculty, after being charged with sexual harassment. With its focus on a fictional clique of college Marxists, the new novel appears to be something of an exorcism--or at least a meaningful meditation--for the ostracized writer. Dobyns' institutional banishment resulted from a complaint filed by graduate student Jennifer Cotter, a member of SU's Marxist Collective, who encountered the writer at a March 31, 1995, off-campus party. Witnesses, and Dobyns himself, acknowledged that the professor threw a drink in the young woman's face. Cotter said Dobyns' made lewd references to her breasts and called her a "stupid Stalinist bitch." In The Church of Dead Girls, the Marxist students include a character named Harriet Malcomb, who vaguely resembles Cotter in age and physical features except hair color (the fictional student has long, dark hair while, in 1995 at least, Cotter had long sandy hair). But what's in a name? Harriet Malcomb perfectly parallels Jennifer Cotter's name both syllabically and accentually. The given name Harriet might suggest a hawk or a hound or an harasser, while the surname could connote a malcontent or malevolence...or malarkey. Or the name may be nothing more than a coincidence. In the novel, Harriet's motivations appear entirely manipulated by members of a group called Inquiries into the Right (IIR), clearly modeled after SU's Marxist Collective which--some might say--engineered Dobyns' downfall. In turn, Harriet repeatedly uses her sexuality to manipulate various male characters, at the behest of her IIR lover who refers to her as his "soldier." Although some readers may see her promiscuity as evil, Harriet and the other fictional Marxists actually become a focus of sympathy in Dobyns' novel, as they suffer all manner of abuse at the hands of chauvinistic townies. So the real-life antipathy between Dobyns and the SU Marxists may appear here in mirror image, with the IRR depicted as the victim, even though Dobyns may well have considered himself a victim of organized, mob-like retribution in 1995. In his public apologies, Dobyns said he lost his temper and threw the drink only after Cotter returned his insults with the comment, "You're a tired old man!" This ambitious and socially-relevant new novel proves Dobyns still possesses plenty of creative energy--he's only 56 years old, after all--but concerns about aging surface nevertheless as the novel's most consistently recurring sub-theme. Dobyns--whose wife hails from Chile--left Syracuse after he was suspended, and spent several months in South America. He now lives with his family in the Boston area, but he peppered this book with allusions to Central New York--an October snowstorm, The Post-Standard morning paper, a character wearing an SU Orangemen sweatshirt. The author of nine volumes of poetry and 18 novels remains listed among the SU English faculty in the recently-published 1997-'98 Syracuse University campus directory, but it's unclear whether Dobyns will ever return to teach there again. Russ Tarby is a Senior Editor, covering books and music, for the Syracuse New Times. He won a first place award for Arts Criticism in the 1997 AAN Editorial Awards. FOR REVIEW COPIES AND/OR AUTHOR PHOTOGRAPHS CONTACT: Megan ButlerMetropolitan Books (Henry Holt & Co.)Phone: 212-886-1094Fax: 212-647-1874

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