I ran up the hill to my local bookstore, Christopher’s Books in Potrero Hill, and bought a copy. Being a lit snob, I’m usually not one for a “genre” novel, but this one is built on the foundation of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Intriguing, yes?
The main character, David Ullman, a professor in the English Department at Columbia University, is a certified expert in mythology and Judeo-Christian religious narrative who’s also an atheist. The Call of the Siren covers the significant plot points in his review, so I won’t do that here.
I just want you to wrap yourself in the book’s engaging metaphors, intelligent observations, and Death Valley humor.
From the opening paragraph, Ullman observes: “The rows of faces. Younger and younger each term. Of course, this is only me getting older among the freshmen who come and go, an illusion, like looking out the rear window of a car and seeing the landscape run away from you instead of you running from it.”
Two pages later: “The air of Columbia’ Morningside campus is damp with exam stress…”
And from the next page: “Yes, most of them are only here as pre—Something That Will Make Serious Money–pre-med, pre-law, pre-marrying rich—but most of them are not yet beyond reach. If not my reach, then poetry’s.”
These observations, among many others sprinkled throughout the first few pages, establish Ullman’s “street cred,” as a professor who’s both highly intelligent, observant, and jaded–yet hopeful. These character traits, especially the last one, drive the narrative.
When he describes another professor, Elain O’Brien, his best friend, he might be painting his own portrait: “She tells a few jokes, but observes the world’s absurdities with a wit that is somehow hopeful and withering at the same time.”
However, it turns out his own color palate is a bit darker; he’s been “pursued by the black dogs of unaccountable gloom” for most of his life.
Part of Ullman’s current gloom involves the man (Will Junger) who’s having an affair with his wife. Ullman’s description of Junger springs forth from the limbic (reptilian) part of his brain, the most ancient part, the one that governs territorial instincts, mating, and ‘fight-or-flight’ responses: “What does this man look like? Something sly and surprisingly carnivorous. Something with claws.”
This stands in stark contrast to his wife’s defense of the lover she’s chosen: “‘He’s charming,’ she said finally, landing on the word as a butterfly decides which flower to rest on.”
Readers gradually come to understand that these metaphorical insights are not just the idle observations of a cuckolded husband. They are far, far darker, tinged with evil, original sin, Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. I can only think of the phrase, layers of layers of liars.
In Ullman’s first encounter with a representative of the shapeshifting evil he confronts throughout the book, a primal sense takes over: “I can smell her now. A vaguely barnyard whiff of straw, of close-quartered livestock.”
It is not the scent of fire,
it is the stench of the those who are no longer with us.
And again, one page later, as the narrator descends in the heat of the New York subway (a certain form of Hell), he observes: “The air is more wretched down here, vacuum-sealed and sweetened by garbage. This, along with the human scents, each relating a small tragedy of enslavement or frustrated desire as they pass.”
But the book is not all despair and horror, as the author uses humor to lighten and move the narrative forward. When Ullman describes a confrontation between himself and Junger to his confidante, Elain, she asks:
“Did you really say that?”
“Almost,” I say. “I certainly wish I had said all that.”
“Then let’s say you did. Let the record show that the slippery snake, William Junger of Physics, is right now licking the verbal wounds inflicted by the dangerously underestimated David Ullman of Old Books.”
“Yes, I like that.” I nod, sipping my drink. “It’s like a kind of super hero power, when you think of it. Having a friend who accepts your version of reality.”
The reader grins at this thought. And then the real joke, the irony, hits us when Elain replies, “There’s no reality but versions of reality.”
So forewarned, we enter the dark, restless dream-turned-nightmare that is this wonderful novel. Myriad allusions worthy of a term paper that I cannot possibly go into here.
But wait, I have a quibble!
My ONE and ONLY reservation about this book? The plot line of the Pursuer that puts increasing pressure on Ullmann as the story progresses. The Pursuer is human, yet somehow tracks the narrator across the country in a manner that seems supernatural. But the story is so engrossing and powerful that I’m willing to let this slide–until the end. At this point, the Pursuer plot line comes to a conclusion (one I will not divulge), and the reader is left to wonder what the Pursuer’s “employer” will do because they haven’t succeeded in getting what they want.
This minor issue cannot keep the Demonologist from entering Paradise. It is truly a “divine” read—a work that is both fine literary fiction and a paranormal page-turner.
Find it at your local bookstore or at the airport. I saw it prominently displayed on store bookshelves at SFO and O’hare this past week.
One caution. Don’t read it at bedtime. You won’t be able to turn off the light, because once you do, it will haunt your dreams.
Oh, and thanks, Nick, for the recommendation!