September 20, 2010
What this superhero does is pull the weeds in Lorne Field. Everyday, from can-see to can't. Well, those weeds aren't really weeds, they just disguise themselves as weeds. They're really a nasty, bloodthirsty bunch of monsters called Aukowies, that must be pulled from the ground and burned every day. Left unchecked, they would grow so fast, become so unstoppable, they would destroy the world in a matter of weeks. So Jack pulls the weeds and burns them.
Jack is the ninth generation of Durkins to work this field. That's roughly 300 years the Durkins have been saving the world on a daily basis. And people used to revere Jack's family; they took care of the Durkins and paid them well. People used to understand that the Durkins gave up most of life's pleasures so that we could all stay alive. Used to. Nowadays everyone thinks Jack is just a crazy man. Including his wife, a woman worn beyond her years, a woman who wears her bitterness with a kind of twisted pride. Though misunderstood, ridiculed, and persecuted, the gentle Jack lets nothing sway him from the job. And then one day, his wife decides that the contract must be broken, setting in motion a wheel of tragedy and horror.
I read several reviews of The Caretaker of Lorne Field, wanting to see if other readers had a similar experience with this book as I did. It quickly became clear to me that this is a book no two people will see in exactly the same way. Some reviewers saw it as strictly a horror story. Several reviewers called the book "darkly funny" or thought it a mix of horror and humor. I found this story layered with dread and unease, and not funny at all. Mostly I found it sad and poignant, an expose of just how callous and mean we are. Not "society," not "people." Us. That's how on-target are the characters in this book, how very ordinary they are in their selfishness, in their reliance on conformity, and their intolerance of whoever and whatever does not conform.
Some reviewers thought there were underlying parallels to fascist politics, either modern or historical. I saw religious parallels, a morality play. Jack Durkin is in many ways subjected to the physical and emotional hammerings as Job of the Old Testament. Like Job, Jack endures but at enormous cost to himself and to those he loves. And in some ways, Jack is a Christ-like figure: Every weed Jack pulls is a sin forgiven, and sins must be forgiven because otherwise, the wages of sin are death. Like Christ, Jack intercedes, again at great personal cost and risk, to save an ungrateful humanity. Jack is persecuted and arrested for crimes he has not committed.
Or has he?
Is Jack really just a (pardon the pun) garden-variety maniac? Is he the kind of lunatic who would cut off his son's thumb to prove the existence of creatures who really only exist in his mind? Is Jack so deeply obsessed, so much a monster himself that he would murder to protect his delusions? Or was it the Aukowies who committed these crimes? Are they smart enough to know just how best to weaken their enemy?
The author provides plenty of evidence for arguing either side of the case, setting up an ambiguous suspense that is at the heart of the story. If Jack is lying, why would the town have contracted such a job, and in such detail, and maintained that contract for 300 years? Why would Jack work like a dog, deprived even of the simple things in life others take for granted? But if Jack is telling the truth, why does no one else ever witness the presence of the Aukowies?
The reader will ache for Jack's wounds and losses, and like his wife, will start looking for an easy out. Instead, the narrative creates a spiral of dread, a vortex that is broad and easy at the top, but with a flow and forces that spins down faster and narrower and faster and darker, toward a black hole from which there will be no escape. At book's end, the reader must close the cover, face himself alone and ask, "Do you believe, or don't you?"
This is just the kind of book that someday will be on high-school reading lists, and this is the kind of thought-provoking book that will then be challenged by both parents and church leaders, possibly even banned in some ultra-fundamentalist communities. But every reader, and particularly fans of Stephen King, should take a peek into this odd, sad fable. What you find there will forever be a secret between just you and Jack Durkin. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.