Thursday, March 26, 2009

John Daniel's New NonMystery

        Many mystery writers work in other forms as well, including nonfiction.  I've had three nonfiction books published: "The View From The Vue," recollections of life as a med student and intern at New York's Bellevue Hospital more than 40 years ago; "The Enchanted Ear, or Lured Into The Music Box Cosmos;" and the long-out of print "Genetic Engineering: Threat or Promise?"
        John Daniel is one of my favorite mystery writers; his sly, slightly-out of kilter sense of humor and ingenious, hectic plots made books such as "The Poet's Funeral" and "Vanity Fire" impossible to put down.  Now, John has produced something very different, but no less readable.
        The Ballad of Toby and Lark is subtitled A Cat Fantasy.  It's a short book, 53 pages, written in free verse, and accompanied by charming, engaging drawings by the author.  The story is that of Toby, a sixteen-year-old boy, in love with Lark, a gardener twice his age.  Unfortunately, because of their age difference, Lark's affection for Toby doesn't go beyond the maternal, and the object of the boy's affection decides to cohabit with Toby's handsome but nasty Uncle Pewter, a hunter.  Toby finds his way to Mistress Mangle, a kindly herbalist-witch who keeps a house full of cats.  The witch turns Toby into a handsome tomcat; as such, he returns to Lark's house, and she welcomes him as a pet.  Uncle Pewter, though, is less than enchanted, and tosses Toby-cat out on his ear, whereupon he trudges back to Mistress Mangle's.  The witch brings in Vixen, an attractive young woman-cat (and once a human woman), to concoct a scheme to take revenge on Toby's uncle, which is all the more satisfying because of how appropriate it is, considering Pewter's occupation.  But then, Toby has to made a choice: assume cat form permanently or go back to being a human.
        One could read this story as a little fairy tale for grownups, but that would be a mistake.  At first read, the tale reminded me of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but where that book could offer only a fatuous pseudo-profundity beneath its surface, The Ballad of Toby and Lark plumbs interesting depths, some of them dark, even troubling.  Basic attitudes and preconceptions are called into question. 
        Moral and existential ambiguities are prominent in all of Daniel's fiction, and the author is very good at presenting dilemmas, while leaving interpretation and judgement to the reader.  The Ballad of Toby and Lark challenged me to consider the nature of love and sexuality, both in and of themselves, and in relation to each other.  I found myself thinking hard about interactions between people and non-human animals, and weighing the pros and cons of dangerous, devious actions with malice aforethought, committed against distasteful people. 
        Then, there are the characters themselves.  For example, Lark is not a lawyer or an accountant who enjoys gardening as a hobby; as portrayed, she's not even a farmer.  There is "...cheese from her goats, and from the bees, sweet honey, and sweet garden peas..." but we never see her producing these.  What, really, does she cultivate in that garden?
        There is no sense of geographic specificity about the setting, though various details project an image of antiquity, casting a feel of timelessness and universality upon the story.
        For a small investment of money and time, The Ballad of Toby and Lark yields high dividends in terms of enjoyment and stimulation of the imagination.  I recommend it highly, and part of that recommendation is that you read it slowly, and more than once.

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