I require a rare, peculiar combination of factors in order to be able write a negative review. The book can’t be just bad. If it’s just bad, I’ll dump it in the re-sell bag or return it to the library. It’s got to be good enough to keep me wanting to read it, with the same sort of fascination that prevents a person from turning his eyes away from a train wreck.
The Wheat Field finds that sweet spot. It was fairly well written (though not as well, I think, as the review blurbs suggested). I opted not to give up on it even when it offended me, not because I was compelled by the narrative, but because I wanted to see whether the author was actually going to take the story where I figured it was going, and actually say what I figured he would say.
Well, it did and he said it.
The narrator and main character is Deputy Pennington (I don’t think we’re ever told his first name), a law officer in Kickapoo Falls, Wisconsin, in the beautiful Dells country, a location the author uses effectively in some action scenes. Pennington, speaking in the present as an old man reminiscing on his law enforcement career back in 1960, tells how he was called one beautiful summer’s day to a farmer’s wheat field, where two naked people, murdered with a shotgun, had been found in a flattened crop circle
I think Thayer means us to like Detective Pennington. I think we’re supposed to like him because he’s so honest (he admits to being a voyeur, and murdering more than one criminal he couldn’t touch through legal means. In his first scene he takes pleasure in threatening the farmer who discovered the bodies because a) he’s short, b) he didn’t serve in the war, and c) he’s a Republican).
Oh yes, Pennington is a Democrat in a Republican county, as well as a Catholic in a Protestant community. I think we’re supposed to like him for that too. Especially when he reminds us how really evil the Republicans are.
There’s nothing so horrendous, you see, that the Republicans won’t do it. While hypocritically talking about morality, the Republicans practice group sex, make pornographic films (even a snuff film), and they’re planning to assassinate presidential candidate John Kennedy. (It’s never entirely clear why they want to kill Kennedy. Maybe it’s that he wants to lower taxes. Or beef up the military. Or get rid of Castro. Or “pay any price, bear any burden” to defend democracy.)
One of the murder victims is identified as Maggie Butler, a woman Pennington grew up with and has been in love with all his life. Her husband, the other victim, was a leader in the local Republican power structure, centered at “The Kickapoo Gunn [sic] Club,” and as Pennington pokes into that den of vipers he faces not only the locked-arm opposition of the party structure, but the suspicion of his own fellow officers. Eventually he is framed for the murder, but gets freed by another policeman (I’m still not sure why), after which he sets off on a trip to Nantucket, Massachusetts, to find the real murderer. At this point the plot rapidly sheds all pretense of plausibility and descends into pure Gothic melodrama.
I saw the big surprise ending a mile away, too.
The writing was good in places, but I thought the dialogue wooden. In one place a young boy, describing a local recluse, calls him “a hideous monster.” Has any American kid used the adjective “hideous” spontaneously since 1919?
Thayer’s earlier books earned glowing reviews from the New York Times (which put him on the bestseller list) and Stephen King, so I think of this book much the same as I think of the recent spate of lame anti-war movies, which anti-war news outlets feel compelled to praise to the skies, just because they push the right lessons. This wasn’t really a very good novel.
No doubt the movie is already in the works.