On some days, loneliness falls from the sky, scattering shapes that can’t be held for long. These are what the poet Lucretius called “the bootless sorrows of the heart.” They pass through like ghosts, and most of us are happy when they’re gone.
The author Skip Horack isn’t afraid to make these unwanted feelings his friends. “The Other Joseph,” his second novel, is a compassionate look at Roy Joseph, a young man isolated from the niceties of American life, struggling to overcome the trauma inflicted by the supposed early death of his older brother, Tommy.
For almost a decade, Roy has been a subject of Louisiana’s draconian legal system. When he was 19, “carnal knowledge” of a 16-year-old girl placed him on the wrong side of the law.
“I had a pervert driver’s license to go along with the sex offender identification card I was also required to have on my person,” confides Roy. “They love me at the DVD.”
Now he’s a “shaggy haired” roughneck who lives with his dog in an Airstream trailer on Grand Isle, a Louisiana barrier island he views as a “penal colony.” He works on a drilling platform in the Gulf, where he has recently lost a finger in a machinery accident.
Shortly before his 30th birthday in 2007, when his sentencing restrictions will expire, Roy receives an email from Joni Hammons, a teenager living in San Francisco. Joni claims that she’s the biological daughter of Roy’s brother, Tommy, a Navy SEAL presumably killed-in-action, swept away at sea in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm.
Roy is skeptical of Joni’s kinship; nevertheless, his noble Chrysler LeBaron is soon breezing through the Cajun “banana republic,” where farmers are burning their fields before harvest, “the land all around me on fire and smoking.”
In Dry Springs, his boyhood hometown in north Louisiana, he drops by his family’s old property, which is said to have an ancient effigy mound in the shape of a mythical Underwater Panther. (Years earlier, Roy and Tommy had hung sealed vials of sacred mound dirt around their necks, signifying their fraternal commitment.) Before pushing off for California, he parleys with Mr. Donny Lee, his backslapping accountant-adviser, who discloses that Roy’s inheritance from his parents has ballooned to more than $2 million.
Skip Horack is a maestro of building slow-cooking suspense, Kamado-Style. His debut novel, “The Eden Hunter,” is an astonishing tale about a “pygmy” slave named Kau, who escapes into the Florida outback in 1812. Kau experiences the American universe as a “second world,” and, in his way, Roy does, too. Bug-eyed, he’s always looking over his shoulder, although “The Other Joseph” never succumbs to the easy suspicions of modern life. Most of the fringe characters that Roy meets on his journey tend to be honest people just trying to survive, which isn’t to say they aren’t odd.
Take Lionel Purcell, Tommy’s SEAL buddy, an addled, reclusive vet living in Battle Mountain, Nevada. He offers Roy fresh details about Tommy’s disappearance, while encouraging him to read heavyweight Russian novelists: “They teach us to suffer like men. Copy?”
In San Francisco, an “international marriage broker” named Viktor Federov attempts to pair Roy with Mariana, a recent arrival from the old country. More counselor than confidence man, Viktor suggests that Roy ditch the LeBaron: “Russian women do not come to America to ride in ugly cars.” It doesn’t much matter to Mariana. She spots Roy’s nine fingers and shrugs, “This is something, but this is also nothing.”
When he finally arranges a meeting with Joni, Roy thinks of her as “a foundling left by gods to prove they exist.” She takes him to visit her special places secreted among the eucalyptus trees of Golden Gate Park, and he shares Tommy’s photo album. “My memories were the most (Joni) could ever have of her father,” he says, “and I would give her what I could.”
“The Other Joseph” has downbeat notes, qualified at every turn by Roy’s stoic sense of humor: “Everything is going to be okay, even if it isn’t.” The atmospherics are reminiscent of early 1970’s American pictures like “Five Easy Pieces,” which also opens on an oil rig before gravitating toward apotheosis on the Pacific coast.
For Roy Joseph, the 21st century moment is not one of choice, but of circumstance. There is no worn-heeled glamour in “The Other Joseph” and little option for “return,” even if Roy is teased by the “investment portfolio” he left in the hands of Mr. Donny Lee, a promise contemporary readers will know at once to be false, given the impending economic crash of 2007.
The narrative of “The Other Joseph” is actually a memoir that Roy had assembled in a three-ringed binder shortly before his own disappearance. It finds its way to Tommy in 2011, who was not swept away in the sea during Operation Desert Storm as originally presumed but recently liberated from a mysterious two-decade imprisonment in the Middle East. No spoiler alert necessary. It’s clear from the book’s introduction that Tommy is alive and Roy is doomed, having leaped off a “jackup” on Christmas, 2008, vanishing in the Gulf of Niger while trying to rescue a marauding pirate.
All of this improbable aquatic circularity allows Skip Horack to balance the novel’s more solitary tendencies. If Roy is alive somewhere out there — and there’s a suggestion in the afterword that he might be — Tommy will find him, perhaps summoning the Underwater Panther for a sequel to this modernized legend about the uncommon bond of devoted brothers, either of whom could be “the other Joseph.”