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By Randall Silvis

Berkley Prime Crime, Penguin Books, 2011
Trade paperback ($15.00)

ISBN-13: 978-0-425-24346-6
Kindle eBook ($9.99)

Reviewed by Sam Waas

"Why does beauty hurt so much?" is a question asked in THE BOY WHO SHOOTS CROWS, but the question seems to remain unanswered. Perhaps this is understandable, as this is one of the central queries of human existence. Many other questions are presented in this masterpiece by Randall Silvis, and as might be expected, how to best answer them is left mostly to the reader.

Once in a great while, a book finds itself in your hands that quickly embeds its power into your core. This happened to me once, living in El Paso, when I first opened Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," a novel that literally gave me nightmares. Hearing McCarthy at a seminar and meeting him briefly at a local bar, I was struck with wonder. How could this intelligent, soft-spoken man create such horror? But such is the gift of the true artist.

I felt this again when reading THE BOY WHO SHOOTS CROWS. It is a work of genius, a novel so filled with such immense imagery and strength as to make you catch your breath. Randall Silvis, for example, employs a familiar method from the writer's toolbox, using the landscape and scenery of the rough world to mirror the emotions of the characters, evoking in the reader a connection between surrounding nature and the inner workings of the human spirit. But Silvis performs this with such consummate skill that it becomes a new thing to behold.

The story is a simple one, on the surface at least. A midlevel but successful artist, Charlotte Dunleavy, fresh from a harrowing divorce, moves from her familiar Manhattan digs and buys a rural farmhouse in Pennsylvania, there to resume her painting with renewed energy. A local pre-teen boy, something of a castoff, often tramps through the woods near Charlotte's house to shoot crows, but the boy has now gone missing. Mark Gatesman, the local sheriff, investigates the disappearance, speaks at length with Charlotte, and a friendship soon develops between the two. Yet the mystery of the boy's whereabouts is critical, and it drives the narrative through the moody and brooding sameness of the township, providing careful clues and hints to the underlying truth. The boy's violence-prone stepfather is suspect, as well as a troubled teenage boy who was seen in the area of the disappearance. Harassing schoolmates of the young crow shooter also come under investigation. And in this modern world, predatory molesters are everywhere. So the list of suspects is generous but clues to the disappearance are not.

There is a strange detachment among the townspeople, as if their life energies had slowly sublimed into the surrounding atmosphere, that they are now merely role playing by rote instead of from the heart. A paralysis of spirit and body seems to pervade the area, reminiscent of the enervation of the soul found in Joyce's "Dubliners." Even the missing boy seems to have little consequence beyond formulaic expressions of angst, the boy's mother being the only one who appears to genuinely care.

This persistent loss of human depth and capacity for connection is artfully mirrored by a recurrent mist or fog that seems to permeate the forest and fields. Silvis is brilliant in the way he creates this scenery and illustrates how it connects with the minds of the people there. Only the distant mountains seem immune, only their beauty unimpaired. I'm reminded of a passage from Housman's "Shropshire Lad":

Into my heart an air that kills From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills, What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went And cannot come again.

This immense loss of innocence, this failure of our spirits to connect with what is so elemental in nature is a theme that runs throughout this superb novel.

But rather than lapse into a brooding set piece of pseudo-retrospective gloom and rural landscaping, the mystery of the missing boy persists with subtle yet unmistakable force, preventing nostalgia freeze by continuing to remind us that a possible homicide has been perpetrated in this placid land.

Then, just as you've accepted the narrative and presume the trappings of a conventional murder mystery, midway through the novel you suddenly find yourself asking "What the hell is going on here?" But the question isn't one of confusion nor of muddled writing. Instead, it's our recognition of the slow, methodical, and masterful revelation of a dark mystery that's unveiled to us as though meticulously scraping a palimpsest, removing the veneer of falsehood and uncovering the cryptic message concealed beneath the artfully deceptive narrative.

I cannot recommend this book more strongly. With narrative skills and a tension of immediacy that remind me of James Dickey at his best, Silvis has created a gripping mystery within a literate and intelligent framework. This novel will appeal to both mystery fans and mainstream readers alike.

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