NONFICTION: Vagabond author Poe Ballantine settles in Chadron, Neb., and finds himself embroiled in a real-life true-crime story.
If you are a regular reader of the Sun magazine, you’ll know well the anticipation of a new Poe Ballantine essay. His voice from the margins of this country is distinctive in its humor, compassion and hard-earned wisdom. If you’re not already an enthusiastic reader of Poe, by the end of the first chapter of his new memoir, all two pages of it, you will be.
Here we are introduced to our narrator, who is once again down, out, and headed West, “the direction of escape after disaster, the direction of decline and the setting sun.” This is familiar territory for Ballantine, who has gathered at least two previous collections’ worth of misadventure (“Things I Like About America” and “501 Minutes to Christ”) from his years of drifting.
But “Love and Terror” moves quickly to its primary subject: Chadron, Neb., where Ballantine has settled with his wife and young son. Chadron is a quiet town, and it’s to be a simple life. We know, though, from literature and life, what comes of such plans. The idyllic is sent awry when a local math professor disappears. The frenzy continues as his whereabouts remain unknown and reaches its fever pitch when his body is found months later, burned and tied to a tree.
Everyone, from the police to outside investigators to patrons of the local bar, attempts to solve the case, but no one can. Ballantine, who knows all the key players — including the dead professor and the criminology professor, “loose-skinned and yellow-toothed as an old crocodile,” who is trying to seduce Ballantine’s wife — takes a writerly interest in the true-crime story he finds himself in. The action occurs at a convenient time in the author’s life, as he is at work on a novel his publisher is less than excited about. She figures (rightly, I suspect) that the resultant nonfiction account will succeed better financially and literarily and encourages him in this direction. For this opportunism, Ballantine briefly finds himself a suspect, which reveals how much confusion surrounds the case.
And it’s the rendering of this confusion more than of the shocking details that makes “Love and Terror” such a compelling read. Comparisons to “In Cold Blood” are appropriate, but the differences between the books are significant. Whereas Capote’s primary concerns are psychic (his concentration on what separates Perry Smith from himself), Ballantine’s concerns involve truth (what even happened to the math professor?) and living amid uncertainty (how do we nevertheless find meaning?).
A partial answer to this last question is given by Ballantine’s narrator, who demonstrates the truth that humor and humility are the tools of sanity. The crafting of this persona is superb, and there are any number of further superlatives I could assign to the prose, but the plain fact is that not every writer makes you stop to reread for the sheer pleasure of doing so; Ballantine makes this happen regularly. I join Cheryl Strayed, who contributes the book’s introduction, in hoping that the secret of Poe Ballantine stays secret no longer.