Kathleen Wakefield, Snaketown
Publisher: Cleveland State University Poetry Center
2010, 159 pages, paperback, $10

the past is never past, and the present is rife with evil in Kathleen Wakefield’s award-winning novella, Snaketown. Striving for Faulkner by way of Morrison and McCarthy, Snaketown is a lyrical meditation on familial brokenness. Wakefield eschews the short sentences one might associate with a bleak thriller and instead unfurls train after train of comma-linked clauses that meander under her firm control. Wakefield is a working lyricist—she has written for both television and film—and her story of an eight-year-old girl gone missing in a sun-blistered, snake-choked Arizona town delights in a raw poetic terror that seeks but ultimately falls short of the sublime. Fortunately for Wakefield, a style that might seem derivative in a lesser writer’s hands often sings with sustained, singular beauty.

The novella’s central thread follows the Sibel family on one fateful winter Sunday. The family’s past and present twist and tangle into a circular pattern of heartbreak and regret. The action of the novella takes place several years after Willard and Maywood Sibel, patriarch and matriarch of their large rural family, have died, leaving the family rudderless. Wakefield selects the cursed son, Orin, seemingly prodigal since birth, as the manifestation of Sibel dysfunction. According to his own mother, Orin has been “badly put together, unloved in his creation.” It is as if she had carried twins, but “one die[d] in the womb, and the surviving one [was] born with teeth sticking out of its head, pieces of dead hair and fingernails.” Willard had never considered the boy his own, but one of Orin’s sisters, knowing better, refers to her brother as possessing the “full strength of [Willard’s] seed; the one he despised…as we despise the worst in ourselves.” Orin is a pyromaniac youth, a self-professed innocent fondler of little girls. Later, and most pivotally, he is the widowed husband angry at God.

As a clear symbol of her unavoidable damnation as a Sibel, a snake-shaped birthmark curls around the arm of little Caytas, granddaughter to the deceased Willard and Maywood. When Caytas goes missing, everyone in the family and town suspects Orin, including the sheriff. “But butter wouldn’t melt in [Orin’s] mouth,” the sheriff thinks, “since he got religion, and his sister had said he was at church.” The citizens of Snaketown and every member of the Sibel clan maintain this attitude of inevitability and resignation. Will Orin violate his family by violating his niece? Will the townspeople rise from their porches and lawn chairs, set down their beers, and intervene on behalf of an innocent child? The family’s past, having generated its own cursed momentum, seems already to have answered these questions before they are asked.

And what do we make of all the snakes? They inhabit the novella as they do the town: as a symbolic force, a background hiss or rattle, lending their biblical weight as signifiers of evil exiled from the garden. In one of her lyrical flourishes, Wakefield describes Snaketown as “the motherlode of snakes, you couldn’t move without stepping on one, snakes tying and platting and making snake love all over, tongues searching, eyes yellower than candlelight, dropping heavy from heights, and twining like tree branches, calling everything their own.” The novella never explicitly posits the Sibels as mirrors of the snakes, though Wakefield does give them a nice touch of consonance. Similarly enveloping the small town with their wretched ways, the Sibels are, in the sheriff’s estimation, “a bunch of drunks picking up odd jobs, living like rats in turds, cars and junk in their yards, children all over the place.” They seem from this outsider’s perspective to be your average, blue-collar, “white-trash” mash of humanity.

While alcoholism is no weak demon, it’s simply become a worn-out narrative trope, akin to the orphan become rich, the abusive husband, the hooker with the golden heart (Requiascat in pacem, the lot of them). The writing slacks in such places where Wakefield indicts the devil of drink as the cause of the Sibels’ downfall. Snaketown’s strengths shine when the family’s descent into perdition feels organically grown out of the God-forsaken, snake-infested landscape. For example, Wakefield compares Orin to the saguaro cactus, which “needs a nurse tree on which to establish its existence.” Orin as cactus would thus require the “shelter of…a paloverde, the paloverde being its link to life, the saguaro becoming strong, the paloverde becoming weak, often with fatal consequences, although sometimes far down the road.” But Orin is as bereft of his creator’s love as a saguaro cactus is of shelter.

While its prose never approaches the sheer originality of its stylistic forebears, Snaketown reveals a fresh, landscape-informed reading of familial sins passed down. If a writer presents the universal through the doorway of the specific, then Snaketown’s success is found in its exploration of one family’s geological evolution into perdition. If Faulkner and O’Connor had the Civil War and its generations of ghosts, Wakefield has her desert landscape and its myriad snakes. There’s no harm in making your characters drunks. Give them snakes for pillows and you have a new recipe for post-lapsarian fun.

Flannery O’Connor often represented the world’s evil manifested from without. The Misfit, one of her most blatantly devious creations, was the external threat Bailey’s family intersected with. But Snaketown shows the slow birth of evil from within. Though the outside world means little to the Sibels, the menace of universal evil lurks in their DNA—indeed the menace slithers underfoot. Their downfall is inescapable, as unstoppable a force as the natural world, like the snakes that devour their young. Exploring such bleak, hardscrabble lives, Snaketown’s hope-the little it does offer—ultimately lies in its telling, and the darkness rarely reads this beautifully.

—Chris Margrave