Richard E. Gropp
As I drew even with the barricade, I glanced over and found the soldiers watching. As soon as he saw me turn, the one who had been on the radio glanced away—an embarrassed, self-conscious movement—but his comrade, my soldier, continued to watch. He flashed me a bittersweet smile, then swatted at an imaginary fly, waving his hand in front of his face. It was a completely innocuous gesture—anyone watching on video wouldn’t give it a second thought—but I caught the meaning. A sort of “good luck.” I returned the wave, then turned back toward the trail.
And that’s how I got into the city.
Dean Walker is a college drop-out who would prefer anything to becoming the accountant his father desires. In point of fact, he’d love to be a photojournalist. Spokane, Washington is under lock-down, and the little news that comes out is anything but normal. Dean is determined to sneak into the city to use his cameras to record anything he sees. It’s easy enough to get into the city; it turns out that its guardians are more interested in keeping people in. Once inside, Dean becomes close with a group of friends who have banded together while they try to locate missing family members and attempt to work out the bizarre things they see. Dean photographs everything he can and manages to get the most electric photos smuggled out of the city.
I loved this book from the get-go. I loved the language, the characters—I loved the format. Each section begins with a stark description of a puzzling, and frequently frightening, photograph. The following part will clue you in on how the photograph came to exist. As a whole, this book gave me the feeling as if I had found a document I wasn’t sure I should have; I’ve only ever had this sensation from one other book (hint: I mention it in paragraph four of this review).
Gropp’s portrayal of a large city under lock-down would be interesting enough—he does a stellar job of making the characters and their reaction to the situation realistic. It’s easy to sneak in; sneaking out is more difficult but can be done. However, most don’t want to leave before they can find out what has happened to their friends and family. They all help each other—some for favors or rewards and some just because they want to. The relationships that form between the trapped citizenry and the soldiers who’d also rather be elsewhere are plausible and touching. The strange occurrences that Dean photographs are skin-crawling and will make you keep the lights on while you read. Case in point:
Down there, lodged in the wall, is half a face. Half a human face—sexless—ringed in a nimbus of short, dark hair. It is angled inward, toward the wall, and its open mouth is bisected just to the left of the canine tooth, sheared away where flesh meets wood.
The wide-open eye is not blurred. Not clouded. Not insensate.
The eye is clear. And damp. And terrified.
Gropp has an excellent story here, but does not leave it at this. All through is the undercurrent of the reason Dean has come to Spokane—he’s not searching for family or friends (at first); he’s not a relief worker. He’s there because he wants to make himself famous with a cool photograph, and he’s aware that this may involve the suffering of people who have had no choice about remaining in Spokane. He knows he should leave, but doesn’t. He has bona fide reasons for staying—he is completely fascinated and half in love with the first character he meets, but he’s also come to care about this loosely knit group that has adopted him and can’t bear to leave them to the increasing chaos. However, like Will Navidson in Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, he has to face the fact that he is photographing real people, real tragedy. Is he a self-serving jackass? Maybe. Or, does he have a responsibility to try to capture these images of Spokane that defy human understanding? Does the risk to his own life negate his self-interest?
If you prefer books that have a concrete explanations at the end, this book may frustrate you; many characters speculate or are sure they know what has happened, but the actual truth remains elusive. Personally, I liked this approach; much like Octavia Butler’s Kindred, the reader must accept the situation the author describes without getting bogged down on the why. Bad acid trip? Mass hallucinations? Government plot? All possible. Gropp’s creepy images will remain with you, but his fascinating and complex characters even more so.
Buy It: Jump over the barricade, run toward the bookstore. Do it. Now.
Richard E. Gropp
$15.00 (Paperback), 432 pages