Okay, okay, first, that abominable Harlequin-from-Hell dust jacket(1). Yeah, this is a boy-meets-loves-loses-girl story. But with author Shepard, you always get a lot more than plot themes. Plus, you get his phenomenal lyrical yet punchy writing style, which is always a delight. Throw in the atmosphere of honeysuckle, mossy cypress trees, swamp mud, bugs and humidity, and you have a wonderful side trip through the magical goo filling the cracks between our known, physical world. The setting is the Louisiana bayou, where water and land are not so easily delineated, and poisonous creatures mumble in the concealing vegetation. It is a landscape where spiritual creeds mix it up like a dog fight, breeding mutts of Christianity, Druidism, Voodoo, Hinduism, and countless panthestic assemblies with esoteric rituals to explain the unexplainable. It takes a magician to make you believe in a story like this.
This is the subtle direction Jack and Vida's explosive love carries us. It proves to be a can of hallowed worms, however. Jack is pinned when his BMW breaks down on the way through this small gulp of a town called Grail. Vida's just coming off a 20-year stint as the Midsummer Queen, which is a local magic show of dubious success and reputation. You see, some time back the good folks of Grail made a deal with this obscure entity known as the Good Gray Man. A "scarecrow" is picked from the town's crop of 10-year old girls and crowned to be a shit magnet so the locals can continue to bask in only the good luck floating around. The Good Gray Man is bargaining for a connection to the love he lost and the chance “to haul himself back into the here-and-now from the not-there-and-never”(p.125). Jack can't figure this sudden walleyed love for the obviously-troubled Vida, and, even though it is the right cosmic match, Fate cannot be wrenched to comply. Instead of trying to nurture Vida out of her maddness, Jack takes flight for reasons he can't understand, leaving Vida churning in “the raw spoilage of love . . . the product of a wrongly set spell”(p.126).
The cosmology of Louisiana Breakdown most resembles “spiritual anarchy”(p.143, afterword by JK Potter). Lots of major religions proclaim their God to be the one, true God, but what if there was a hierarchy of Gods? Or, even more confusing, what if our universe was brimming with thousands of autonomous gods, mixing their dogmas and influence into a celestial porridge the unwary pilgrim drinks as absolute, when, in actuality, there is no pronouncement of the pure metaphysics, just rituals and speculations that seem to fit the appetite. It's not a hoax, it's—well—complicated. And, like everywhere else, there are interpretations that prove unreliable, or deliberate holy lies, hidden agendas among the deities, squabbling, campaigning, and, ah, spinning. God—or the Devil—could be an assortment of beings coming from different galaxies, different dimensions. And maybe, when encountered in the temporal world, we get His specs all wrong.
Lucius Shepard is too sly to write a simple love story. To him, even with all its varied and nuanced complexities, love seems a springboard to the higher speculations of celestial bliss and felicitous enchantment. Maybe the high road offers firm ground in the cloud; maybe “lofty” is the only way to deal with the insupportable, the unknowable. And maybe, just maybe, that's what makes Love challenge Fate and life worth living.
1) Being a horror fan and photographer, I admire JK Potter's work immensely. Especially the earlier composites before digital made multiple image consolidation a lot more manageable. Just not this one, dude.
Reviewer's afterword: This is the work that moved Lucius Shepard to his rightful place on my Best Of list. This is not his magnum opus, but Shepard is a writer of such brilliance that mastery, creativity, thoughtfulness, and insight weave throughout all of his prose. He is most agile with the short story or novella format, which makes assigning a medal to a single work most difficult.