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By Robert Kloss
The Unnamed Press
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
If you're a fan of Cormac McCarthy's pre-All the Pretty Horses novels, Blood Meridian, Suttree and Outer Dark and the others, and you wonder why so much of the discourse around the guy focuses on his later work, you might find yourself quite comfortable in the Relevator's decidedly dark landscape. I can tell just by reading this that Kloss is a hardcore early McCarthy nut. He even references an "outer dark" over the course of the novel, although I think there's an "outer dark" in the Bible, so maybe that's a coincidence. Do I blame him for loving the early McCarthy? Of course not. I've been talking up Blood Meridian to folks who only read the Road since good old 2013. Yet my biggest problem with the Relevator is that Kloss seems a little too comfortable trotting around the ground McCarthy made his.
Make no mistake: Kloss is a good writer, both good with a plot and good with a sentence. As plots go, the Relevator concerns Joseph, who begins the book as a popular carouser in a frontier town. His life changes when he receives a vision from a god and decides to become an apocalyptic preacher along the lines of Paul Dano's character in There Will Be Blood, or maybe Jethro Furber from Gass' Omensetter's Luck. From there, his cult builds and becomes more of a threat to the authorities. The whole time, a black mountain believed to house a mysterious and violent creature of the god looms in the distance, and of course it plays into the story by the end. The story loses narrative momentum by the end - Kloss could've gotten away with ending this novel about thirty pages before he did - but it definitely contains insight into groupthink, power dynamics, the lot of it. So it's a good book to read during an election year.
Kloss never comes out and says the frontier town is in the United States, or for that matter that Joseph is a Christian preacher, but the clues are there. For one, the diction is downright Biblical, full of short declarative sentence written in an oratorical style. Take, for instance, this sentence: "And this shopkeeper brought you the daily paper illustrated with the great finding of the day - some enormous and terrible lizard a hundred million years dead and buried, transfigured into bone and stone and now dug up" (35). Simple and direct, but pitched pretty high on a rhetorical level and often beautiful when Kloss needs it to be. I'm always happy when I see terrific writing early in a book, as it makes me want to read as much as I can, so you can imagine how I felt when I saw "And Soon the black mountain jutted from the horizon. And some considered it a mirage, and some named it the "Finger of the Evil One," and some called it a tower of soot, dreamed it an ancient citadel misshapen by flame, the horror of all trapped within" (7). You give me that right away and I'll follow you through a lot.
Yet the ghost of Cormac McCarthy haunts this book, and Cormac McCarthy is still alive. Kloss does a lot quite well, so I can't say it's all for naught because he has a clear influence, but that influence is so obvious that I wonder if there's anything here I can't get from Cormac McCarthy. The whole "preacher-gone-mad" thing is right out of McCarthy's playbook, which would be fine if the writing style wasn't as well. That's a little frustrating, because I'm definitely interested in what Kloss might do next, but I also want this to feel like more than a stopgap between the Road and that eleventh McCarthy novel that might not ever come out at this rate. Great design on this book, though. The cover, the typesetting, the illustrations between chapters... the Unnamed Press really outdid themselves here.
Out of 10: 7.9