Dazzling, visceral, heart-wrenchingThe Vanishing Magic of Snow opens in present-day Charlotte, North Carolina, where sixty-year-old Jay Penny and his beloved cat, Cutie, are trying to “make it” through the New Great Recession’s dregs of the working class American Dream.
In a nightmarish sequence of events worthy of Kafka, Jay begins to lose everything, from his job as a call centre worker at VoiceDream, to his grip on his own sanity. But he believes an even older nightmare is behind this devastation…Creepy Karma…The Trick…that secret something he’s kept hidden away for nearly forty years…
As events take a Hellish, near-death turn in present day Charlotte, Jay’s brain does a little trick of its own, heading back to the earlier time-line of this book, which sees the arrival of twenty-two-year-old soon-to-be-arriviste Jay in 1971 Toronto, Canada, having fled Kentucky in the role of Vietnam War draft dodger.
He arrives at the downtown intersection of Yonge and Bloor, backpack full, the pure spirit of adventure in his soul. There, a higher-than-average capacity for sex, violence, and raconteurship, earn him his own table at Grossman’s Tavern, where he adopts the all-black dress-code of his childhood hero, Paladin, from the TV series, Have Gun-Will Travel. But his years-long exile brings him more than that: he enters the milieu of Toronto musicians and artists, becoming a published poet and prose writer himself, as well as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency.
It is at this point that he enters the Golden Period of his life, falling in love and living with the singer, Candi Lee Pike, and becoming friend and mentor to the budding magician, Sonny Storm. Sonny needs a change of image, having lost his own to the whirlwind success of the world’s only other “hippie magician”, Doug Henning…and Jay is a master of image…
Back in the book’s later time-line, the sixty-year-old Jay, however, is a broken man, until the extraordinary kindness of his neighbour, Doc Nehemiah, brings him back to life, just in time for more tragedy to unfold. The beautiful language and dancing, witful lightness of this book on one level, repeatedly give way to passages of exquisite, excruciating torment, as Creepy Karma deals its blows. This is what makes Snow such a devastatingly powerful book. Having lost his job and nearly his life and home, the elder Jay enters the horrors of a bureaucratic machine, seeking new work and unemployment/social security payments which never come, as he and his cat, Cutie, slowly begin to starve.
“Jay dreamed he was in a large lobby with hundreds of applicant stations. The place was Any Job At All. And the hundreds of seats here were already filled, with a lineup that stretched out the door, round the block. Men and women in suits, men and women in rags, those in foreclosure and those without homes, begged shamelessly for any jobs. Not one of them could remember a time when employers were begging for help. When a man could storm out of a job any time and have a new job in a heartbeat. No one here wouldn’t have sung ‘I’m your slave!’ for the chance of a pitiful paycheck.”
Jay lists the businesses which reject him for employment, and the insane, desolating trick questions asked by automated “job station” questionnaire machines: “Do you close the bathroom door when you’re home alone?” “Is it OK to touch a co-worker’s breast if the gesture’s respectful and friendly?” “Is it OK to use just the tip of your tongue in a kiss beneath the mistletoe?”
Next, he lists the food items contained in the charity boxes occasionally doled out by local Charlotte churches, always containing some food for the cat, always too heavy to easily carry home, always running out too soon.
Perhaps the last straw is the visit by young Trueblood Johnson, who wishes to procure Jay’s last worldly possessions:
“I was down myself last year till somebody was sent to help me. I listened, dawg, and I received a lesson in entrepreneurification that done turned my life around. How busted are you, tell me true…But you ain’t without assets…I’ve been beat-down pitified by your situation. Shit, you’re older than Moses and starvin’…So, here. Take the money, dawg, and live…Wake up and cough the smelly, dude. You lost your chance to liquefy and now life’ll deliver the whippin’ you need.”
Meanwhile, back in the book’s earlier Toronto timeline, it is the memories of young Jay’s childhood in Kentucky, and the fateful visits Jay’s parents make to Canada in their old blue Rambler car, which threaten to overwhelm:
“The afternoon ends dreamily, my two-beered mother going on in a rambling, astonishing speech I couldn’t begin to recapture. I myself have had five beers and find myself starting to warm, then to thrill, to her tales of Paducah. And I can hardly bear the commingled five-sense memories of butterball turkeys and honey-baked hams and the hum of the blue Rambler’s rotated wheels and the sharp smack-cracks of baseball bats and the river in my nose and mouth when the canoe upended and the smell of the ink from dad’s paperback books and the soft wet shock of my first kiss with Angie who died in a crash the next year…”
But those rare family visits themselves are destined to end in tragedy for Jay, casting a pall then over the golden period itself. Candi Lee Pike’s sweet beauty no longer then enough of a balm; Sonny Storm’s re-emergence as a Real Magician black-garbed biker as much a bad omen now as a figure of wonder. Jay’s faith in true magic, even the magic of love, must now be put to the test.
Meanwhile, back in contemporary Charlotte, the sixty-year-old Jay’s mind keeps escaping into the past. It is unclear to him now whether he is being assailed by karma, his own heart, beasts from the nearby forest, creatures from his own id, or by Sonny Storm’s curse. Faced with the latest humiliation and agonised failure, Jay hears advice from within and momentarily becomes his childhood hero, Paladin, taking strength and inspiration from the memory, even while worrying about whether he had only ever absorbed the image of this “knight without armour in a savage land”, perhaps missing the substance until it was too late. But is it ever too late?
“…this is indeed the story of an American knight who quotes the saints, but isn’t one. Who works for gold, without a trace of greed or spiritual gelding. Had I only taken the image and left the mighty heart behind? Had I dressed like a hero who dressed like a villain for reasons unknown to myself? These were discomforting questions. I couldn’t think of any dream that I wished I’d had less.”
Finally, wearing the strangest and saddest scarf you will ever read of or see in any novel, old Jay heads off into the night-time streets of modern-day Charlotte, intent on at-last honouring the friendship and love of Candi Lee Pike and Sonny Storm.
There he gathers around himself the oddest audience for an impromptu one-off Magic Show no-one will ever forget.
A last chance to “Become Legendary”.
The last and final benefit of the power of Real Magic, in the form of The Almighty Shockeroo, which, in an ending reminiscent of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf fuses and bonds the two time-lines of this 152-page masterpiece.
“There’s no dodging anything. We all get one battle that we have to fight.”
“That’s enough. That’s all I need – I know that I’m about to go into one final Forgetting and that’s okay by me. I’ll take my chances, thank-you.”
Reviewed by John A.A.Logan
The Vanishing Magic of Snow is available in Kindle format
Find out more about Reb MacRath