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Daniel Krotz

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Leatherstone by David Pabian: A Review

Posted: 06/16/10 07:01 PM ET

One of the consequential ironies of the free market (and of Socialism) is that it reduces choice while expanding market share. Simply put, more and more consumers get more and more of the same "stuff". At the endpoint all our stuff, including political institutions, is "made out of ticky-tacky and it all looks just the same." Inexorably, but while traveling far different paths, the Free Marketer and the Socialist arrive at the same place only to find One Big Bank, One Big Retailer, One Big Farm, and One Big Government, all dishing out carloads of the Lowest Common Denominator.

Publishing is a leading ironical indicator that we travel such a path. There are now about a dozen large publishers of fiction left in the United States, all bent on consolidation and merger. We can knowledgeably expect there to be fewer than a half dozen left within the next five years and that what they publish will fall into two categories: Gothic Juvenilia, and a few "marketable" authors of literary fiction who functionally operate as literary rock stars rather than as writers. Consequently, the Lowest Common Denominator, books like Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter franchise, will suck the air (and money) out of the market's discretionary cash cache while effectively--more or less--competing with Amazon.com's price point strategy.

The creative courage required to publish, say Stanley Elkin or Thomas Berger is an obvious casualty of One Big Publishing Company. "When the mediaeval craftsman had to make the opening of an ordinary dirty gutter," wrote Chesterton, "he made it the mouth of a goblin..." and so it often was with the making of books. The little goblins of John Cheever, Pete Dexter, J.F. Powers, et al., were allowed to see daylight until readers, or the movies, found them. Today, the possibility of their seeing light would be unsure: none of these writers was concerned with endless go nowhere foreplay between adolescent girls and the undead, and it is becoming increasingly hard to find a goblin's mouth anywhere in current literature's run of seamless guttering.

Still and all, there are writers of unfashionable fiction who cannot stop writing whether or not there are publishers to publish them. True, they can turn to the ever diminishing number of small presses operating in the United States or, if convivial and correct enough, to University Presses, but by and large the main survival strategy emerging is to self-publish. This was the strategy adopted by the screenwriter David Patrick Pabian, author of Leatherstone, an arresting, modern day riff on Mary Shelly's Frankenstein.

Leatherstone is a gothic novel in all its characteristics. Each--and every one--of its characters, including the adolescent hero Champ Garrett, operates in an eerily machine-like, morally neutral way, and each is divorced from the expectation that life might one day be cheerful, pleasant, or anything less than an anxious grind. The town where the novel unfolds, Horizon Village, is an arena where common gothic conditions such as loneliness, retardation, alienation, and sex absent love, and it is a place where the people are operated by forces over which they have no control. Horizon Village is quintessentially authoritarian and it is permeated with a sense of imprisonment and an atmosphere of confining narcissism.

In this dismal place, Champ Garrett is unknowingly overwhelmed by his (very real) problems and turns obsessively inward to seek release from anxiety and depression. What results is his becoming a closed loop (arrested) personality who survives by hoping to create an alternative, heroic self that will protect him from a drunken caretaker, his grief over a lost mother, anxiety over his emerging sexuality and that of his developmentally disabled sister, and conflicted feelings about an absent father.

Champ's hopes seem realized when he finds an ostensibly dead body that is "reborn" when he revives it with jolts of electricity; Leatherstone is that revived body, a new Prometheus and a heroic self that Champ believes will rescue him from depression and fear. What follows is the story of how badly Leatherstone fails Champ as he, Leatherstone, becomes more self-aware and begins to assume an identity separate from Champ's.

Pabian delivers Leatherstone in a flat, ironical style that compares Champ's anxious, untenable feelings about the world he lives in with our own good feelings and good opinions of the "normal" world. Pabian turns the status quo inside out, and as Champ and Leatherstone gaze into the mirror of self-reflection, they don't like what they see very much.

It is hard to imagine a book like Leatherstone making it over the transom of One Big Publisher. It is a small, economically written book that relies on a culturally literate memory of the scary films of the 1930s and 1950s where Michael Landon say, becomes the ultimate alienated teenager, a teenage werewolf. Champ's sense of alienation from self and society, exactly like that of the teenage werewolf's alienation, is too rooted in reality to find mass market favor: it sees ordinary life and ordinary relationships as the highest pinnacle to ascend; no flying brooms, magic, or necrotic kissy face aids or bars ascension--people make it up the hill, or they don't, because they suddenly get lucky, or unlucky.

That all seems very machine-like, but every Frankenstein story is a creation myth, not about creating a man, but creating something like a man. As Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and Dr. John Polidori sat about the fire near the shore of Lake Geneva in 1816, they idled through time by scaring the pants off one another. It was here that Mary Shelley conceived of "a pale student of unhallowed arts [who] created the awful phantom of a man." Pabian has done exactly that with his own unfashionable, scary book, which is in no way a Big One ticky-tacky book. And for that we are glad that it was written and published.