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Okay, the first thing to know is that you can read the same story with 200 pages less of a commitment in author Straub's A Dark Matter, winner of the 2010 Stoker award. Apparently, Peter wanted to enshrine a purer version than Doubleday's chop shop trade edition with this earlier state, "a much looser, sloppier, more wild-eyed version of the book"(back DJ flap). All I can say is half-way through, I considered switching.

But I didn't.

The Skylark is structured like a wagon wheel. At the hub is an event that occurred on October 16th, 1966, where the survivors' lives were changed interminably. The plot follows these characters from past to present and back again with side-bars and side-characters up and down the spokes, building mystery, excavating scraps of informationreal or fictionalizedand gaining traction on the slippery slopes of a chimerical reality. Elusive narration is certainly a factor, as the POV is handed around like a bota bag on a dusty day, but since different characters share the same fabulous visionsplus a whole tar bucket of different onesthe veracity of a phantasmal universe cannot be denied. It becomes a question of which rut will break this world's axle in these participants' lives.

The event is focused around Spencer Mallon, a charming vagabond in bellbottoms and beads who preaches a kaleidoscopic vision of inter-dimensional realities available through "experiments" he'll perform out in a chosen meadow when certain mystical and cosmological alignments are in place. From the University grounds where this occurs, he assembles quite a diverse cast of a half-dozen followers, all devoted and/or madly in love with him. There's the Venus with a heart of worms, the closet gay kid with shitty defense mechanisms, the gambler obsessed with a guru, the thief who steals for other, compulsive reasons, the blossoming serial killer who starts with cats and his masochistic nobody child friend, the no-personality bully; and surprisingly, the dullest character to keep the spotlight off-stage for the bulk of the novelthe beautiful, intelligent, confident, everybody-loves blind woman whose girl name was Eels; holder of the souls, hearts, cojones, and central, must-know secrets for everybody else's edification on exactly what happened that evening.

Remember, it's 1966.

These kinda things aren't that strange.

Anything Peter Straub writes is worth a look. This one, however, was quite a pull. He said it true on the DJ flap: there's a lot of dust bunnies under the bed and unnecessary graffiti on the walls. I admire the way Straub can simply toss a characterboth Spencer Mallon and Brett Milstrap come to mindyet not eliminate him from the story. And, he can also take the most whitebread, relatable personalityLee Harwell the writerand make him quite yawn-inducing as the reader's guide and organizer. Although expected, I got to resent the withhold reserved for the climatic finish, which is, of course, Eel's version of the meadow debacle. Why else squirm and wiggle on the reeling hook for that 549th page?

And, admittedly, following right after In Delirium's Circle, this felt like a tricked-out, read-aloud from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood on how to baffle 'em with doggie-do while pointing to your pedigree.


© copyright 01/15/2014 by Larry Crawford

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