international review: poe ballantine, love & terror on the howling plains of nowhere

A book that began on our true crime shelf at work before moving across many aisles to the biography section, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere is a memoir written so beautifully that for a while I had to put it down out of creative jealousy*. Poe Ballantine is a man that was as surprised as anyone by his affection for the town of Chadron, Nebraska, when he stumbles into it in 1994, and even more so when—after more shuffling around both the American continents—he returned to it with his Mexican-born wife, Cristina. Chadron has a population of some 5,800 people, many of whom turn up next to him at The Olde Main Street Inn to crack a beer and talk. And, in 2006, talk turns to one thing: Steven Haataja, the university professor who paid his rent one morning, went to work, made an appointment for 8:30am the next day, and vanished.

This is not entirely a true crime book; it belongs with memoirs. Poe is not defined by the crime, though he is moved by it. The book is as much about a middle-aged habitual wanderer attempting to discard unhappiness and become a good husband and father as it is a book about the missing Haataja. Poe’s son is a boy who loves fire exits and socialising with adults, but who may be autistic; Haataja, a professor of mathematics (incidentally, I first wrote “math professor”, but it just feels too strange to say that instead of “maths”) who is intellectually far above everyone else but happy to try and explain himself, could also be on the spectrum. It’s a spectrum Poe is unsure of, and one others use to explain his disappearance as suicide. When his body is discovered on a nearby property three months later, the closure everyone is waiting for does not arrive.

It is a credit to Ballantine’s writing that the stories of himself, his family, his friends—hell, even his son getting a haircut—are just as dynamic as those where bodies are found and half-drunk gangs storm out of a pub to search behind mysterious locked basement doors. Ballantine interviews more people for the book than he can name, but that doesn’t necessarily mean forensically precise details; this is in the book’s favour, and draws you into the local experience of the crime (if it is one), even if you occasionally find yourself a little biased about which town member you’d like to have seen shipped off to prison for committing murder.

Told in seventy fairly brief chapters, I wonder whether some of these moments were originally destined to be essays (Ballantine is a renowned and rightly adored essayist and novelist), as there are moments of repetition that threw me out: the constant reference to the crescent-moon C on Chadron’s water tower (I started to think the key to the mystery would be found there), the early frequent referrals to his wife using her background and looks and immigrant status instead of just calling her Cristina, in case we had forgotten about what had brought her to Nebraska and what she was going through to naturalise, even though we had been following her story as closely as Poe’s own. Nevertheless, this is the kind of book that reminds me of what nonfiction can do in the big rough hands of someone who can write of heavy moments with weightless beauty.

 

* In its place I picked up Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s memoir An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, which reminded me that I need not be good at everything in the world—I would never have the discipline required to leave the planet, it turns out, though I do have the lack of height to fit in the Soyuz—and gave me the required break to get back into Love & Terror. Incidentally, Hadfield’s book is ridiculously interesting, and he is a compelling and straightforward writer and a determined, entertaining and often funny man. When he was still in orbit and posting on Twitter every day, I went outside one clear evening and watched the International Space Station trace a path over the night sky. Sometimes, humanity is incredible.

review: sulari gentill, gentlemen formerly dressed

While I am a month behind on reviewing this here, know that I have been verbally reviewing this to anyone who has come within a five-metre radius of me at work who has requested my opinion. (In previous bookstores, offering advice about what to read was how I spent the majority of my time; at my current job, it seems all the customers are far too independent to want to know what I can offer. It’s like they’ve grown up, and I’m still a mourning parent who wants their kids to ask them for help again. So when someone asks my opinion, I essentially become an attack dog of information.)

This is Gentill’s fifth Rowland Sinclair book, and the first I’ve read. While coming to the series later means I’ve missed some entertaining-sounding past capers that are commented on during the book, nothing that is necessary goes unstated, and if anything, this fabulous book has just made me want to go back and read everything. Rowly, an Australian who has just spent part of 1933 being tortured in Germany, escapes to London, ally to Australia and his ancestral homeland. With his arm still broken from his attack, he gathers all of his considerable wits and money, deposits himself and his bohemian sidekicks in a swish hotel, then decides to use his aristocratic background to gain audience with someone who will listen to his story and heed his warning about Hitler really, seriously not being a great guy. Upon opening the door to his first meeting, said contact is found skewered to his bed with a sword and in a state of dress not generally seen on men of his calibre in public. Such shenanigans embarrass the police sufficiently that they do not feel compelled to spend a large amount of time investigating; thus, Rowland and his cohorts now have two things on their to-do list: warn of impending danger, solve crime. Put this on your list: read this book.

I enjoyed this so immensely that I read parts out to my partner, laughed out loud, did some vocal cheering and always put it down with a smile on my face. It’s not that it’s exclusively light-hearted – fascism and murder isn’t an endlessly pleasant topic – but the characters, from Rowly’s artistically inclined inner circle (from poets to sculptors, and progressive to fuddy-duddy, but all loyal and clever) to those he encounters along the way (from friendly strangers to cameo appearances by such folk as HG Wells), just enliven the book completely. There is a brawl with fascists using some interesting props, and an incident at a train station that caused a fainting epidemic and had me in stitches. There are set pieces and characters I’d love to revisit. As it is, one reading has left me entirely happy for now, and the delight in this book should be shared. Good for young(ish, I mean there is scandal) and old (my grandmother would have been thrilled with all the good manners the roguish Rowly knows, and that he bumps into members of the monarchy), it’s a good present for about everyone you know, including yourself.