by Mitch Cullin
Editions, Chester Springs, Pa.
The radio is always on in Tideland. It fills the background of the
story with waves of whispering voices telling stories about the
fractured world outside. There is heavy traffic on the Interstate.
Some men died in vats at a chocolate factory. And love song after
love song ends with a broken heart.
To a novelist, though, what the radio
conveys is not as important as the ear that is listening. The attentive
ear in Mitch Cullin's wonderfully dark new novel is Jeliza-Rose,
a precocious 11 year old who plays with disembodied Barbie dolls,
chases squirrels and talks to fireflies on the edge of an abandoned
quarry. While wandering these fields in a remote part of Texas,
she encounters a mangled and charred schoolbus. Weeds have patiently
overtaken the seared metal, flakes of paint and shards of glass
are sprinkled across the ground, and rising above it all is the
ominous echo of the disaster that preceded the wreckage.
The echos of human disasters surround
Jeliza-Rose for the rest of the novel. Her mother lays dead from
an o.d. in a Los Angeles apartment. Noah, her aging rockabilly guitarist
father, trades his Buick Riviera for a bag of Pamergan, Fortral,
and Methadone. Then whisks his daughter to Texas by Greyhound because
there are a lot of places to hide in Texas. While he stares at the
cracked ceiling and walls of the crumbling farmhouse, Jeliza-Rose
drifts outside where more fractured lives are tugged by mysterious
tides. Dell wanders the neighboring property in a beekeper's hood
as her semi-retarded brother Dickens plays with sticks of dynamite.
Cullin's dark and often humorous
prose moves deftly across this bleak landscape, like wisps of smoke
rising in the stark, serene quiet that follows a crash. In the middle
of the story, a ghost tells Jeliza-Rose, "Go now, go to where
you came from, where you belong." But after a crash, there
is no will toward movement, no belonging, only a lingering stillness
where the wounded are difficult to disentangle from the wreckage,
and the only hope is in imagining that relief will arrive. And it
does. Not for Jeliza-Rose but for readers who will be sustained
by each page of this vivid novel.