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The Golden State has inspired its share of strange fiction. Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 and Aimee Bender's The Girl in the Flammable Skirt all zero in on the peculiar weirdness specific to Southern California. 

Add Madhouse Fog, Sean Carswell's third novel and fifth book, to the list. Though Carswell is from Florida, he's lived in California for more than a decade and teaches English at California State University, Channel Islands in Camarillo.

His novel begins innocently enough, with an earnest young grant writer's first day on the job. He attends orientation, meets some colleagues and promptly gets lost on the sprawling grounds of the hospital that has hired him to secure funding for its endeavors. It's all perfectly ordinary except that Oak View, as he is reminded by one of the doctors, is no ordinary institution:

"A psych hospital is a bad place to look lost. Someone will find a room for you, sooner or later."

The grant writer never really gets oriented to his new surroundings. A neuroscientist seeks his support for a project involving "the collective unconscious" that sounds suspiciously like telepathy. A blind yet meticulously well-groomed ad executive who's strangely invested in the outcome of these experiments keeps turning up. And the grant writer's past intrudes on the present in unexpected ways. Is he being followed or is working in a psych hospital making him paranoid? An exchange with a hospital staff member offers a clue:

"If you study metaphysics, there are no coincidences."

"I don't study metaphysics."

However, as the grant writer's skepticism begins to crumble, the novel takes off in surprising directions. Though Madhouse Fog is not a mystery, metaphysical or otherwise, the grant writer serves as a reluctant detective who must get to the bottom of the weirdness afoot at Oak View. 

Madhouse Fog is a delightful look at human communication and how we know what we know. More gently weird than savagely strange, it reads like a mash-up of Richard Brautigan and Haruki Murakami. (Or maybe the wind-up bird the grant writer keeps on his desk is just a coincidence.)

What's definitely not a coincidence is that CSU, Channel Islands, the college where Carswell teaches, used to be a state mental hospital. 


It would appear that the work of Terese Svoboda, the impossible-to-classify poet / novelist / memoirist, is tapping into the collective unconscious. 

After she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship earlier this year, University of Nebraska Press released a paperback edition of her 2006 novel Tin God, a work that combines the contemporary with the historical. 

Set almost entirely in a field in the middle of North America, Svoboda juxtaposes a drug dealer's search for the stash he hid in storm-ravaged rows of sorghum with a ragged band of conquistadorsí wayward quest to find the fabled city of gold.

Both journeys are foolhardy, rendered with extraordinary wit, and conclude with rapacious violence. How does Svoboda pull this off? By making use of the original omniscient narrator: God. 

The result is an immersive look at the hearts and minds of middle Americans through the ages as they search for something they're not sure even exists but are propelled to probe deeper into a terrain that grows increasingly alien. 

As God says, "To be lost requires a place that is out of this world."


In Jack Kerouac's On the Road, a character based on the late William S. Burroughs has this to say about the human condition: "Some's bastards, some's ain't, that's the score." 

Marlet, the anti-hero of Brian Allen Carr's novella Edie and the Low-Hung Hands, published by Small Doggies Press, is a bastard of the highest order.

Marlet is a swordsman with freakishly long arms who wanders about post-apocalyptic Texas dispensing justice. He goes from town to town, causing mayhem for no particular reason, exacting revenge for actions to which he is utterly indifferent. 

Carr's a native of Texas, and his writing invites comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, and while the story bears a slight resemblance to The Road, his prose calls to mind the gothic style of McCarthy's Tennessee novels. Yet it's the pulp fiction of fellow Texan Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, that resonates. Take this confrontation with a bartender who did Marlet wrong:

"'What do you think happens when you die?' I asked him.

He shook his head. 'Can't say.'

'Not yet,' I told him. 'But you'll know soon enough.'

He closed his eyes and waited for it.'

Carr's vision of an America gone mad makes for a grimly entertaining Western-with-swords in which I thoroughly enjoyed getting lost.

Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.

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