Triviana

An excellent novel
of modern gothic Americana

''Prairie Gothic''
By J.M. Hayes
(Poisoned Pen Press, 266 pps., $24.95)

Buy it at Amazon.com in hardcover

Reviewed by John Orr
February 2003

Who knows (or cares) what the literary academics might say, but it's just possible that ''Prairie Gothic'' by J.M. Hayes could be considered Capital L Literature in much the same way that, say, ''Huckleberry Finn'' is respected.

It's as gothic as Faulkner, as amusing as Twain and it takes on an American legacy of religious extremism that began with those nutty Puritans who were too radical for England.

And it does so with stunning inventiveness and admirable wit in the face of horror.

For those of us who live comfortably on the coasts -- West or East -- it's all too easy to forget about Plains states such as Kansas. We wonder, if we think of them at all, why anyone would ever have wanted to live there. Dust storms in the bad summers, blizzards in the winters. Enough to drive people mad.

''Prairie Gothic'' is a sequel to ''Mad Dog & Englishman.'' Hayes says he didn't expect to write it, but it's a happiness that he did so, and it would be pleasing to see it become a series.

Mad Dog and Englishman are half brothers who share a mother who was part Cheyenne. Mad Dog got that nickname as an aggressive high school football player, then decided to make it legal after he decided to embrace his tiny share of Cheyenne heritage. His half brother, whose last name is English, became Englishman before he grew up and was elected sheriff. ''Mad Dog adored his nickname as much as the sheriff hated his. Only family got away with using it anymore. Most folks called him Sheriff, but if you mentioned Englishman, everyone in Benteen County knew who meant.''

This wildly plotted mystery starts with Mad Dog having stolen the body of an old man who wanted to be buried an Indian way, in a tree, so birds will pick his bones clean. Meanwhile, Englishman is investigating a dead baby found at the retirement home from which Mad Dog took the old man. And Englishman's daughters, both named Heather (known, since "Star Trek: Voyager" as One of Two and Two of Two) have disappeared while getting a driving lesson from Deputy Wynn (Some, Lose Some) in what becomes a blizzard.

Then Mad Dog finds the skull of a baby who died before birth, which gets the local political types in a frenzy, putting Englisman's job in jeopardy. Except that danger is small potatoes compared to what happens once Mad Dog's cell phone is shot away from his ear, his buffalo and pet wolves are killed and the Heathers are kidnapped by an inbred, insane family of religious zealots.

It is a dizzying novel, with montage cuts like a movie -- Robert Altman meets John Woo with a scary chunk of Roman Polanski thrown in -- and manages to economically work in wise and often amusing perceptions about the ways of American Indians, Plains states Christianity and the ways even Kansas is changing in the modern world.