Complicating matters, Esther has a romantic attachment to her art colony’s guru, the sinister Maxwell Summerour. Fast-talking and fast-moving, Summerour is a typical masculine cult leader, a pagan charlatan pitching a quack philosophy of “discipline” founded on the benefits of a mystical agrarian system. Indeed, Maxwell seems to have “restored natural order” to Muskogee; the abundance of wild hogs and crops of tomatoes and peppers provide continuing sustenance for the colony.
Where there’s discipline, of course, there are disciples, though Maxwell regards his artistic followers with contempt. (“They have weak minds,” he confides.) Like Will, Maxwell has visions, too: “A time of great transition is coming,” he announces, though his metamorphic portent may have more to do with a transfer of assets than the Noah-style deluge sensed by Will most of his life.
Will would be ready to flee the island upon his arrival were it not for his need to rescue John, a young chess-playing orphan who becomes a surrogate son. John’s late father was a journalist for the Savannah Daily Post who uncovered the greedy schemes of Arch Holdings, an exposé that John believes got his father killed by Maxwell and his stooges.
The author’s clever insertion of documents — assorted Daily Post clippings John hides in a Tupperware container — also reveals the origin story of Muskogee’s “Crescent,” a sort of Native American henge of quartzite monoliths lined up in a semicircle on a secluded beach, off-limits except for Maxwell’s special occasions.
In “Eyes on the Island,” Muskogee’s flora and fauna are usually manifestations of evil: “vines encircled the chimney like interlocking figures pulling it toward the earth.” Elsewhere, shadows are “sentient” and clouds are “insane,” which some of us have suspected all along but never had the nerve to say.
There’s the hallucinatory natural beverage, the secret “Black Drink” of the Creek Tribe, made from the indigenous yaupon holly bush with its “bulbous toxic berries.” Black Drink is used by Maxwell’s cult in a moon-cycle ritual “meant to bring them closer to God,” in other words, a bacchanalian, pig roast, which is the novel’s penultimate blast.
“Eyes on the Island” offers old-school Gothic elements. While not exactly a conventional mystery, there’s a certain Hardy Boys appeal: Will and John bumbling around the woods trying to sort through murder and backwoods mayhem, attempting to elude Maxwell’s henchman, Frederick, who is flanked by his pit bull, Stark.
With all of its solitary theological disputation, the action resolves in Will’s act of unexpected physical prowess during the climactic flood. A fine piece of winter beach reading, the novel has little sense of humor but manages to convey great fun nonetheless. One searches in vain for some hint of Old Testament camp — it’s not forthcoming — to indicate that the whole shebang might be a holy goof, but “Eyes on the Island” is a mainly straightforward proposition, that is, until the author’s absolutely stupendous rendering of Will’s childhood vision that sells the project in its entirety, indubitably, front-to-back:
“…he remembered seeing a machine in the sky … Encased in a see-through skin, its insides were a puzzle of bones and rust. Plungers and springs pumped liquid through scabbed-over valves. Thick discharge dripped from membranous, metallic ribs. Seas of cilia propelled it through the clouds as the gears churned, slick with human blood.”
“Eyes on the Island”
By Frank Reddy
Story slug: 121816 eyes on the island
166 Pages; Fiction Advocate
Publication date: October 2016
Retail price: $17.95
“Eyes on the Island”
By Frank Reddy
$17.95, 166 pages