Jack Ketchum's Red
I had one of those rare afternoons when I sat down with a novel and finished it in one sitting yesterday. Jack Ketchum's Red (2002) isn't a long novel, checking in at just over 200 pages, but it's a very successful one.
Ketchum is regarded as a pioneer of the splatterpunk movement and, to be sure, his novel Off Season is not for the faint of heart. But, like most of my favorite writers, that reputation is only one small part of a much greater skill set. Red, a textured novel of loss and revenge, is an exceptional example of capturing that most elusive of literary elements: sustenance of tone.
Effective literature (work that achieves a totality of impact across the fields of characterization, symbolism, theme, structure, style and tone) is provocative and complex.
Red certainly falls into that category. I mentioned the thumbnail synopsis to my wife last night (a man's dog is killed out of pure meanness by a group of local teenagers; revenge ensues) and we had a little chat about the "right" kind of revenge.
It's an interesting question--is seeking revenge ethical? Is it satisfactory? Does it grant catharsis?
In the case of Avery (Av) Ludlow, revenge is a window on the nature of his own loss and grief. Ludlow is a wonderful character--three dimensional and deep enough to help readers understand their own motivations if they were faced with a similar situation.
And in terms of tone--that nebulous "feel" that embodies emotion and place while advancing plot and character--this one is superb. Ketchum sketches life in small-town New England in vibrant strokes:
The dog had been a good dog. A damn good dog. His body was still warm.
He got up and closed and locked his tackle box and set his rig, picked them up along with the cooler and walked back to where the dog lay. He tied the arms of his shirt around the dog's neck against the seep of blood and picked him up and tucked him under one arm with the rig and cooler and tackle box all gripped in his other hand and then he started up the path.
The dog grew very heavy.
He had to stop twice to rest but he would not let go of the dog, only sat by the side of the path and put down the cooler and fishing gear and shifted the weight of the dog so that it rested in his lap across his knees, holding him in his arms until he was rested, smelling the familiar scent of his fur and the new smell of his blood.
The second time he stopped he cried at last for the loss of him and for their long fine past together and pounded with his fist at the hardscrabble earth that brought them here.
And then he went on.
Ketchum's prose is spare and precise; the fishing scene is perfectly rendered. He manages, on this smallish canvas, to fully explore the nature of loss and the various transitions of aging. But again, this one boils down to tone, which is one of sincerity.
Some stories meander, and that's okay on occasion, but as a reader I think remarkable books deserve that modifier because they deliver a sustained artistic vision.
Red is that kind of book...
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