Violence, despair and a precarious optimism

  • Article by: TOM ZELMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 5, 2011 - 2:11 PM

Novella follows the lives of three troubled people in western Nebraska.

Another Burning Kingdom by Robert Vivian

A well-armed hermit with apocalyptic visions, living in a hovel in western Nebraska. An alcoholic ex-baseball player driving cross-country to help his brother. A guilt-stricken woman concerned about her husband's safety, though they haven't lived together in seven years. Here is the cast of Robert Vivian's stark novella. All of the ingredients appear to be present for an inquiry into 21st-century alienation, American-style.

Yet the three characters, who take turns narrating, are all filled with hope for redemption. Lem Purchase, the long-distance driver, is on the wagon and has reconnected with his adult children; he even looks forward to renovating his marriage. Unfortunately for him, Lissa, his often-neglected wife, has a new man in her life who lavishes attention on her. Meanwhile, Jackson, a violent and God-struck man, enacts a plan that will restore America to its rightful glory and his brother to the heroism that has eluded him. Each of the narratives is filled with a precarious optimism -- one person's joy will come at the expense of another's.

Vivian's writing has been compared to Faulkner's, and no wonder. The narratives lock us inside the characters who tell them, and this is often an uncomfortable place to be. The event that lies close to the surface in everyone's mind is Jackson's recent violence. A herd of wild horses has wandered in from eastern Colorado. Jackson has somehow managed to lure them into a corral, then has slaughtered them. This scene haunts Lissa and Lem, and for each of the three characters the horses signify a sense of America, what it has lost and what it needs.

Jackson's meditations come to us in a rich, frightening poetry. The horses, to him, were a blood sacrifice which he promises to later explain to us "when the spirit comes upon me -- when I can say it in words with a branding iron for my tongue." The first horse he kills is "so beautiful and graceful with his long sleek shanks made of radioactive fallout. I want to sweep him up in the sigh of a whirlwind." Scary as this all sounds, it has an internal logic that his family reluctantly understands. Even Lissa, who believes Jackson is a "sociopath," admits that "there's a kind of purity to him, too, even integrity." And like Faulkner's madmen, Jackson possesses clairvoyance, the ability to understand everyone and foresee their actions.

"Another Burning Kingdom" entwines a set of perspectives on the prospects of future happiness -- both personal and national. It simmers its way to a boil as Lem drives from California to his brother's prairie home to play an unwitting part in Jackson's drama while Lissa wrestles with her betrayal. Vivian writes beautifully, and his characters draw you into their dreams.

Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

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  • Robert Vivian

  • ANOTHER BURNING KINGDOM

    By: Robert Vivian.

    Publisher: Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 124 pages, $13.95.

    Review: Vivian's novella locks the reader into the minds of his characters -- not always a pleasant place to be.

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