May 2012

Peter Tieryas Liu

fiction

The Dying Horse by Jason Jordan

A perfect storm is brewing, rioters are ravaging the city, and cats are getting talkative. It's the end of the world -- and we know nothing about it. Fortunately, Jason Jordan's novella The Dying Horse acts as a compass in a world gone awry, guiding us with Jesus dreams and musings on the apocalypse. Only, the apocalypse has an uncannily ordinary feel about it. Erik is the most unlikely of protagonists, defined by contrasts and contradictions as varied as the cast that dots the landscape. He struggles with family, identity, and lust for his cute neighbor right before he's thrust into the madness of rapine and destruction. Jordan creates a surreal air by the restraint in his narrative. There are no dramatic cuts to a political leader leading the way, or even the usual let's-save-the-world spiel. Instead, we get a tribulation that feels more like a tourist trip fraught with madmen and bad weather, a mix that works humorously well as Erik handles everything with unabashed quirkiness.

If there's anything we've learned from literature, movies, and TV shows about the end of the world, it's that it's not really the end of the world. Instead, it's a reset button where everything gets set back to zero and allows a drama to play to the backdrop of the tatters of civilization. The seams that hold society together shatter at the first hint of disaster, but in The Dying Horse, the hinted at disaster rarely poses a threat to the protagonists. Instead, it's other people. The journey is in some ways a discourse on American oddities. The first person Erik bumps into is Wes, a wanderer who seems innocuous enough despite the tire iron in his hand. They journey together until they come across a militia packed with guns. These are men who, in normal times, would shoot someone for not being "American" enough, now taking up arms to trap hapless wanderers.

"We're Americans," I say, hoping to smooth things over the situation. After I say it, I feel like an idiot.

"Not anymore you ain't," says the one in the middle. "Every man for himself now that everything's fucked up."

It takes restraint for me not to point out that he isn't exactly adhering to the "every man for himself" M.O. since he's part of a group.

The M.O. of American violence runs rampant throughout the book and when the levees burst open, the nightmares flood out. Nightmares and dreams also form the focal point of every chapter, the crux around which Erik's journey gravitates. It's not just the presence of Jesus or a gladiatorial spear match in a game of "Who Gets the Ax?" that makes his subconscious meanderings so intriguing. It's the intimations at a deeper meaning, the recurring image of a white horse, not dead, but dying, a society, beautiful on the surface, infested and malignant within.

The only reprieve is a potential love between Erik and a woman he meets in the pits, Jenna. A gas station seems like paradise as they wolf down a feast of Twinkies and Nutri-Grain bars. They share a soft moment and "tears leak through the cracks, between her fingers and occasionally sprint down her arms." Erik tries to console her, but fumbles and apologizes. "I'm not a very consoling person. Sorry for that." Jordan could have easily allowed this to turn into a passionate love affair in the face of certain doom. But he veers from the crutch of melodrama, and instead, brutally wrests the two apart before they can find happiness in each other's arms. Plot shifts like this happen regularly and are as abrupt as the chapter titles: "Erik & Wes Head South" and "Erik & Jenna Head East." In any other context, it would be jarring. In The Dying Horse¸ it heightens the sense of unpredictability and keeps readers on the proverbial edge of their seats.

Through the book, the prose is deceptively simple, feeling like a conversation with a friend. There's a soothing quality in the voice and interactions that balance moments of horror with deadpan hilarity. For example, when debating in his dream with a priest, Erik tries to come to terms with religious conundrums. "What about God? What do you think about him?" The response he gets from the priest is, "It doesn't matter. Now remove your outer garments so that I may baptize your penis in the waters of my mouth."

Little details like this abound and fuel the narrative forward, giving us a direct view into the way Erik sees his crumbling world. After sifting through a car's trunk for goods, Erik shuts the trunk. "Then, like someone suffering from OCD, I shut the driver's side door, walk around the front of the car, and shut the passenger's side. It'll bother me too much if I leave them open." And after a murderous attack from an unexpected source, Erik eats candy bars. But, "Instead of littering, I deposit all my trash back in the bag. Maybe the world is ending, but that's still no excuse to litter." There's a charm to his obsessions that draws us in for the ride.

Jordan does something most apocalyptic writers not only fail to do, but refuse to do. He has fun with the characters. The situations never feel forced; they're handled, instead, with twisted insight. Every confrontation oozes dry wit and eclecticism. The final chapter climaxes in a bloody match that seems to surge into something bigger, but really is a surprising revelation about who Wes really is. Then again, we have to wonder, is that really Wes, or has this new world stripped the veneer of civilization and turned him into a broody hunter? Beastliness befits a world divested of morality and the fight highlights what makes Erik such an attractive hero; death and destruction don't change his personality, and even though he can't shape his circumstances, he stays true to who he is, however odd it may seem to the reader. It's a perfect example of how the book works; Jordan sticks to his voice and welds together a unique vision of the end of the world, defying the expectations that usually bog down similar titles in the genre.

Perhaps as a testament to how successfully he sucks us into the end times, the only complaint I had was that the story is over too soon. As a novella, I realize it's not meant to be a full-length novel, and that was the only aspect I wished for, as The Dying Horse ends on a cliffhanger. But that's also in line with the ambiguity of Erik's dreams, the ambiguity of his journey, even the ambiguity within all the character interactions. Hints of moralizing dissipate quickly and didactic monologues are nowhere in sight. There are no pat answers, nor does Jordan seek to provide any in this journey. Well, actually, there is one question that gets answered. In a dream, Erik visits Meowland, a theme park designed for the entertainment of cats. Mobs of cats enjoy roller coasters, mice races, and even fried mice kebobs. At least now I know what cats dream about.

The Dying Horse by Jason Jordan
Main Street Rag
ISBN: 978-1599483337
120 pages