John Dermot Woods's new book, <i>The Baltimore Atrocities</i>, sculpts hundreds of sad, haunting miniature stories into a sort of Ripley's Believe-It-or-Not museum of horrors.
In 1978, Austrian novelist, playwright, and poet Thomas Bernhard published Der Stimmenimitator (later to be translated into English as The Voice Imitator), which consisted of a collection of miniature works bizarre even for him. As the legend goes, Bernhard was known for spending hours alone in the back room of his favorite local café reading the newspaper and listening in on conversations between those around him. Having been a reporter at various times himself, he would make note of the strange local occurrences that struck him in the reports or among gossip, pulling odd details and scenarios out of the text like a sort of mental curio box full of the strange. The Voice Imitator, in effect, then, is a condensation of 104 orchestrations of little windows into evil, parsed together in Bernhard's own stylized way of telling. The result is a bit like so:
A post office official who was charged with murdering a pregnant woman told the court that he did not know why he had murdered the pregnant woman but that he had murdered his victim as carefully as possible. In response to all the presiding judge's questions, he always used the word carefully, whereupon the court proceedings against him were abandoned.
Page after page of these minor delicacies recounting such nuanced tales of murder, suicide, robbery, destruction, and other such misfortunes when played in queue together amass a kind of Ripley's Believe-It-or-Not meets modern-day Dante of what goes on between humans. The end result is one of the most subtle and creepy of Bernhard's career, made even more prominent when viewed against the backdrop of his usual nonstop-run-on-paragraph style, if not less cranky when it comes to unveiling the behavioral plagues people are capable of, ongoing every day.
I bring all of this up on the occasion of John Dermot Woods's new book, The Baltimore Atrocities, which takes its essence from Bernhard's model and then extends that mode into new territory, with compelling effect. The battery of the book, like Bernhard's, sculpts hundreds of sad, haunting miniatures into a museum of their own, though here all circling around the terrain of Baltimore rather than Austria. Woods's ability to imitate The Voice Imitator's tone is compelling, and also runs on blood of its own feel; his anecdotes are somehow more personal than Bernhard's, more guttural, and leave behind the feeling of opening a gift wrapped in black paper to find a smaller box inside it, also wrapped.
Woods is a subtle writer, even when dealing with such morbid subjects as murder, abuse, and death, and the details he uses to illustrate the tiny horrors of daily life might be even more disconcerting than the former. Weaving between stories such as a surgeon who falls asleep while driving and kills a mother and daughter; a suicide line operator who gives up on her job in the middle of a call, resulting in a caller's death; a woman who kills her dinner guest with a stun gun in front of a small crowd, a very dark and somehow heartfelt energy combines, builds stronger and stronger the deeper one reads into it, creating a kind of morbid arc.
And yet, where Bernhard left his museum open and devoid of momentum outside the miniatures themselves, what really wakes The Baltimore Atrocities into its own is the narrative that pierces its heart. Outside the framework of the terror, Woods constructs the story of a man searching for his lost sister, who had been abducted from a park in Baltimore decades back. Between the array of little terrors, we return to the narrator in his search, each time weighing a bit more as a result of the darkness surrounding his path. By alternating between the two modes, Woods builds a dark momentum otherwise lost in all the hell. Each cryptic occurrence is also illustrated with its own equally peculiar portrait of a moment, like little windows into the book's world, which somehow grounds the sprawl into something more palpable, recognizable as acts our neighbors are capable of, our friends and family, ourselves.
The result is an engrossing and unnerving collaboration between the grotesque miniature and a larger heart behind the darkness, reaching and reaching to come out into some kind of light. Woods is smart to take care with any certain form of resolution; readers looking to be absolved of these atrocities won't find any clear comfort along the way, nor should they, because why? And yet, though I can't quite put a finger on what binds it, there is a deft heart to Woods's orchestrations; the eye is warm, and beneath the blood there is a flesh. Like most great books, the experience provided by The Baltimore Atrocities is one you won't quite have a name for afterward, though you might start sitting with your back to the wall when you go to the bar.
Excerpt of Two Atrocities from The Baltimore Atrocities
My companion and I used to end up in the first hours of many Sunday mornings at a club called the Flamingo on East Baltimore Street. One such morning, we shared a bottle of bourbon with a particular exotic dancer, who told us about the near horrors of her school years, horrors that made us wonder if our long-lost brother and sister were better off for having gone missing while still so young. On the day of the Rumson Street Children's Massacre, as the newspapers called it, fifteen members of the dancer's third-grade class were killed and six others fell ill, all because of poisoned cupcakes an angry father sent his daughter to school with on her ninth birthday. Then, in high school, four members of the volleyball team, of which she was the captain, were raped by a bitter young math teacher, who imprisoned them in the girls' locker room and held them at gunpoint (the gun, it was later learned, was a fake). I asked her how she had avoided these notorious tragedies, and she gave all the credit to her mother (for whom she had no other kind words), who often claimed to receive premonitions from her television set. They were almost always inaccurate, but on both of these occasions, the messages told her to insist that her daughter stay home from school the next day. Ultimately, the dancer admitted, although she had not fallen victim to these crimes, the debt her mother expected from her for her lucky intuitions was so unreasonable, and had created so much anger, that she often wished she had not been spared on either of those horrible days.
The more time we spent in Baltimore, the more we came to understand the city's unique ability to take children from their parents in increasingly indirect and unforeseen ways, as in the case of a high school English teacher, whose choice to conduct a relationship with his seventeen-year old student must have been a result of poor judgment provoked by his anxiety about turning forty. The girl was an only child of a single mother, and an aspiring track star with the promise of a full scholarship to any number of universities. Her mother always saw her daughter's legs as her most valuable asset, and she understood that she might never be able to use them again, so, when she was moved to exact revenge on the English teacher who had taken advantage of her daughter, she decided that a set of legs was the exact reparation she deserved. She hired a man who visited the teacher in the faculty lounge and explained that he was going to cut off his legs, and he did, calmly and surgically. After the details of the affair came out, the English teacher had not only his legs taken from him, but his job as well. At the time that he was attacked, he didn't understand why anyone would wish such a cruel punishment on him, until he learned a week later, as he emerged, legless, from the trauma of the event, that his seventeen-year-old student and lover had swallowed several bottles of pills after her mother had learned of their affair and pledged to get both school and legal authorities involved. The girl put herself into a coma from which she never woke.
Excerpt is reprinted by permission from The Baltimore Atrocities (Coffee House Press, 2014). Copyright © 2014 by John Dermot Woods.
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