Undiscovered Country by Lin Enger

I was surprised and, it must be admitted, titillated when I received an email a few years ago from a publisher offering to send me a book to review here on Earth Goat. Once I took down the balloons and said farewell to the clowns and dancing horses, though, and actually sat down to read the book, I decided against doing the review. The book just wasn't good. This happened again and again, and each time the book I received was just not worth the time or effort. And as for books by us or other Workshoppers, reviews here would be suspicious, of course, which is why we interview Iowa people here instead of review their books.
Well, I’ve finally been sent a book that is causing me to break both rules at once: Undiscovered Country by Lin Engler.

Lin Enger teaches writing at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, and is an Iowa Writers’ workshop graduate, but I had never heard of him before. He has updated a classic tragedy while admirably avoiding the problems that could accompany such an endeavor. Undiscovered Country is Hamlet meets Fargo. Like A Thousand Acres, the novel sets the basic frame of a Shakespeare play in contemporary America, this time in Northern Minnesota. The narrator Jesse is writing the book both to confess to his younger brother and set himself straight about a terrible series of events that occurred during his teen years: While hunting with his father, Jesse discovers the old man with the top of his head blown off. Harold’s death is ruled a suicide, but his ghost appears to Jesse and tells a different story. You see, Jesse’s paternal uncle had designs on Jesse’s mom, and….

At first I thought this sounded like a good idea, and then I decided it would be too hard to pull off and began the book skeptically. During the first 20 pages or so I wondered how my interest was going to be sustained, since I knew the basic plot already. Turned out, as is proper, it was the characters that drew me in and kept me going. Jesse is a thoughtful kid who, like Hamlet, is justifiably confused about whom he’s supposed to believe and what he’s supposed to do. His mother (Genevieve) is a distant, ambiguous figure in his life. The scenes with her are really creepy and uncomfortable. Ditto the scenes with the uncle (Clay), a jealous younger loser-type brother who never measured up to Harold, mayor of the town. As you would hope, Harold’s ghost keeps coming back to urge Jesse to action, each time more decayed and ragged and disgusting.

How can Jesse determine Clay’s guilt or innocence? His satisfying schemes are exactly what a kid would come up with. The awkwardness and horror of dealing with such stuff at such a tender age, of accusing your uncle of killing your father, is correctly milked for all it’s worth in the book. The action builds quietly while the reader squirms in the proximity of such a close, almost stifling small-town family drama (one unforgettable scene between Jesse and his mother takes place in a sauna). There are some pitfalls Engler could have fallen into. One would be pretending that the story wasn’t Hamlet, as if Hamlet didn’t exist in the world of the story. What Engler does instead is nifty: He makes Jesse grow up to be an English teacher and he directly addresses the Hamlet parallels. Yet he doesn’t go overboard with it -- he mentions it a few times and moves on.

The tension isn’t resolved until the very end, and the ending, I’ll just say, is gratifying as hell.
It reminded me a bit of Antoine Wilson’s The Interloper. Both books are suspenseful and hard to put down, written in deceptively plain and simple prose, depict awkward family struggles with steadily mounting intensity, and sport a vein of disturbing darkness running through them. Recommended summer reading if you like a sort of innocent creepiness that becomes very addictive.

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