Boneyard – Stephen Beachy (Verse Chorus Press)

Buy it direct from Verse Chorus Press.

My family used to own land in Gettysburg, PA.  Weekends we’d go up to see the undeveloped land, in addition to seeing the various Civil War memorials. On these trips we would see the Pennsylvania Dutch.  The bearded, stoic men in their buggies would clop alongside our station wagon, silent and mysterious.  We’d go to a market and see the Amish women, quiet madonnas in homespun dress, selling apple butter and weird faceless dolls.  I was curious about them.  We only saw the surface—the quilts, shoofly pie.  There was a romance about the Amish—a simple folk out of time in our jaded world.  And yet like all human beings, they must have the neuroses—shadow-selves.  Beachy novel ‘boneyard’ sets out to explore the collective subconscious of modern Amish/Mennonite life through the visionary writings of a precocious child.

The conceit of the novel is that Beachy, doing research on the horrific Nickel Mines murders (where a deranged man killed nine Amish girls) met Jake Yoder, a young aspiring writer in the sixth grade who lives among the Amish.  Beachy pieces together a manuscript that Jake has decided to burn, after Jake deems the short stories within to be evil.

Jake’s stories are filled with a kind of luminous prose that at times recall the prose poems of Rimbaud.  Through this distorted mirror, we glimpse bits and pieces of Yoder’s life, like the suicide of his mother, the murders at Nickel Mines.  These events are disguised, with recurrent characters and images, such as an ethereal blonde girl that could be Jake’s sister or mother, or an abusive man who kidnaps one of Jake’s characters.  These tales are flavored and interspersed with surrealistic journeys across South American pampas, mystical transformations, lost children, and imagined lives—most notably, as an alternative rock star.  Simultaneously, Beachy obsessively annotates the text in discursive footnotes that reference everything from the lives of Anabaptist saints, to obscure Latin American authors to Freudian and Jungian psychology.   His editor, Judith, adds her own footnotes—she is dubious of the existence of Jake and thinks that the child is Beachy’s alter-ego.  There is also yet another subtext/layer: Beachy comes from an Amish heritage himself, and also famously exposed one of the 2000s great literary hoaxes (see J.T. Leroy).

The description of this novel sounds daunting.  It’s meta-textual, labyrinthine, and obscure.  It’s also funny—watching Beachy and his editor bicker.  The “found” novel portions begin to corrode from the writings of a preternatural child into the ramblings of a more seasoned novelist.  (A Mennonite  sixth grader, for instance, probably could not write about an avant garde nihilist punk band in San Francisco.  Or refer to  author Clarice Lispector).  Jake starts out ostensibly pure but gradually becomes a disaffected gay youth, the kind that Dennis Cooper writes about in his oeuvre.

It’s a beautiful mess of a book that explores alienation, childhood and authorship itself, while delving into both the gay and Amish psyche.  It’s a book that belongs on the same shelf with Steve Erickson or Anna Kavan—a book that moves with dream-logic. 

A note must be made about the book as an object.  In addition to having a polyphony of font styles and footnotes, it is decorated with images of Christian martyrs.  The mysterious cover art reflects the the dark beauty within in the pages.  ‘Boneyard’ isn’t an easy read, but it’s a rewarding one.  It is highly recommend for adventurous readers and lovers of experimental or surrealistic fiction.

Review by Craig Laurance Gidney

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