California Literary Review

Castle by J. Robert Lennon

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May 13th, 2009 at 9:41 am

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Castle by J. Robert Lennon
Castle: A Novel
by J. Robert Lennon
Graywolf Press, 224 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★½

Surely Something More

Our modern life seems to consist of a constant barrage of terror-inducing situations: war, sickness, economic depression, not to mention all forms of abuse and intolerance. Amber alerts, elevated threat levels, pandemic level 5—the powers that be must want us to live in a state of continual fear and worry. How much can we take, psychologically speaking, before we break? Doctor Avery Stiles, a character in J. Robert Lennon’s Castle, asks that very question, and uses young protagonist Eric Loesch to find out the answer. But we’ll get to that later.

In his latest novel, Lennon cleverly plays with the tropes of suspense literature. Mysterious items are found in an abandoned house, complete with a creepy cellar and ghostly weeping. The surrounding woods devoid of all animals except for a single white doe. Incomplete legal documents lead to an investigation of a castle inexplicably located in upstate New York. Wary and sometimes homicidal residents keep our protagonist on edge as he searches for the ultimate truth. Some of these are explained, others are not, but the way in which Lennon handles his subject matter is always skillful and surprising.

The novel begins when Eric Loesch, a forty-something former soldier, returns to his hometown in Upstate New York, buys a piece of wooded property, and prepares for the next phase of his life. Written from a first-person point of view, Loesch is a classically unreliable narrator, much like the secretive and untrustworthy Nick from The Great Gastby. But unlike Nick, Loesch lies to himself rather than the reader. He honestly has no idea what he is doing back in Gerrytown, and is loathe to reflect on it, or, as he says:

I tend to align myself against the present cultural obsession with the past—I am not interested in the ethnic and geographical origins of my family, nor in the circumstances of my parents’ meeting, nor that of their parents, whom anyway I can barely recall. I do not like to reminisce about my own childhood, or remember pleasant moments in my life. I don’t keep journals or photo albums, and in general am not prone to reflection at all.

Though later on, after a strange encounter with an elderly librarian, he admits:

I could remember, vaguely, what my mother looked like—the chignon she wore in those days, and her tired beauty—but I could recall nothing specific. Indeed, the more I thought about it, the less I seemed able to remember. The earliest memory I could come up with was the one I have already mentioned, working in my father’s shed and wondering about the box that contained his gun. But I was very nearly a teenager then. Surely there was something more.

This strange lapse in memory is just one of the mysteries surrounding Eric’s return, and his unreliability goes far in heightening the unsettling tone of the novel.

In tension with this fallibility is Loesch’s complete assurance in his own abilities. A former military man, Loesch values quick thinking, action, physical prowess, alertness, and, above all, victory. His speech is precise, though sometimes too formal, and his intelligence is evident. Also evident is his arrogance. Loesch derides his fellow citizens for their apparent weaknesses and spends quite a lot of time congratulating himself on his superiority, such as in this passage:

For my work, specifically my often tense interactions with other people, I had been compelled to develop a sixth sense. Not an actual sixth sense, of course—rather, a heightened sensitivity to the information I gathered through the five normal senses.

Loesch’s arrogance is represented physically as well. He becomes obsessed with a large rock piercing the treeline of his recently acquired land and, after reading a children’s book about a boy who battles evil, decides that he must reach the top. His subsequent trek through the woods and to the top of the rock does little to support his belief in his own abilities; rather, he is left bloodied, broken, and dehydrated after a dangerous fall. But he is determined to succeed.

For all his derision, arrogance, and unreliability, Eric Loesch is not an unsympathetic protagonist. In fact, as readers are slowly fed morsels of Loesch’s violent past (Lennon reveals himself here as a master of seamless flashbacks), they find themselves saddened rather than horrified at the person he has become. It could, of course, be otherwise in less skilled hands than J. Robert Lennon. Yes, Loesch is the survivor of a broken family. Yes, he was involved in a sadomasochistic experiment at a young and impressionable age. And yes, he was involved somehow in a horrific incident during the Iraq War. These may sound more like teasers for a made-for-T.V. movie than plot elements of a piece of literature, but Lennon is able to turn Loesch into an allegory for our modern situation.

In the end, this is a book that advocates for the regenerative power of history. Loesch’s personal horrors and tragedies are discovered to be in concert with those of the current day (the Iraq War) and the historical past (the massacre of Native Americans). Only by returning, both physically and emotionally, to his past, and confronting the ills done to him and those he did to others, is Loesch able to come to some kind of acceptance. He can finally see, along with the reader, the pattern of his life, how his past influenced his present, and how that pattern can finally be broken in order to seek true freedom. But will he find it? The answer to the mystery is, in the end, another mystery.

And what, you may ask, of Doctor Avery Stiles? To say more about him would be to completely ruin the seductive web of Lennon’s elegant suspense. In order to find out the answer to that question, you must read for yourself.

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