Wednesday, December 18, 2013

David Ewald's Clever Take on "Historical" Fiction, 'He Who Shall Remain Shameless'

How could this tale fail to fascinate? The protagonist is David Ewald - not the author, but a fictional character with the same name as the author - and he's on a mission to protect some of history's noteworthy, yet relatively obscure, from being erased from memory forever. Ewald is, in a very literal sense, accompanied by the Internet as a companion. This is fresh, unexpected writing, with a little bit of everything: an action-adventure tale, a paranormal mystery, occasional flashes of romance, and ultimately a message that makes the reader question the very meaning of existence. It's a dark, heavy novel that never feels too heavy. Lovers of cerebral metafiction will delight in it.

I purchased this as a Nook e-book from Barnes and Noble. I was not asked to write this review, nor was I compensated for it in any way. 

I first learned of this book in 2011, and I believe it was through the Coffin Hop. It's been on my to-read list for years. (Lots of things are. If you're expecting a review from me, you'll have to be very patient.) I couldn't get it completely out of my mind because the cast of characters includes many based on real people, now deceased, who were famous or infamous in their time, had a brush with history, or should be more well-known. What most of these real-life stories have in common is that it's hard to find information about them, even in the Internet age. Part of the fun of this novel is that it encourages the reader to interact, to look these people up and test how famous or obscure they really are. 

Congressman Leo J. Ryan, 1973 - official Congressional photo. Public domain image
Probably the most famous of these characters is Leo Ryan, the U.S. Representative who was murdered by followers of Jim Jones at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. Ryan is actually quite an interesting person, because he liked to experience things firsthand. When he was a California assemblyman, he once booked himself into Folsom Prison for ten days so he could experience prison conditions while he was working on prison reform. He went to Newfoundland to investigate inhumane seal hunting. When concerned relatives of Jonestown cult members came to Ryan, he went to Jonestown to investigate. He became the only member of the U.S. legislature ever to be killed in the line of duty. Ryan isn't obscure; you can find out lots of things about him on the Internet. It's just that his story is rather overshadowed by that of Jim Jones, the cult leader. 

The northern Aegean Sea, in an image by Andrew Dalby. Creative Commons image. 
Another figure who doesn't quite count as "obscure" is Aegeus, the figure from Greek mythology for whom the Aegean Sea is named. The legendary Athenian king was the father of Theseus, who slew the Minotaur. Mistakenly believing Theseus had been killed by the monster, Aegeus killed himself. In He Who Shall Remain Shameless, the narrator David manages to communicate to the ancient warrior-king that Theseus was still alive. 

One of the more interesting characters is Christine Chubbuck, a woman much more famous for her death than for her life. She was a news reporter, first in Cleveland and then in St. Petersburg, Florida. She struggled with depression through most of her life. Supposedly, she got into an argument with the news director because he cut one of her reports to cover a shooting, complying with directions from the station manager to concentrate on "blood and guts." Three days later, during a live broadcast of the digest news program on which she appeared, Chubbuck pulled a loaded handgun from her purse, placed it behind her left ear, and shot herself in the head. She died in the hospital fourteen hours later. Her family got a court order to keep the tape of the broadcast from ever being aired again. 

Chubbuck's dramatic on-air suicide and the cynical decision that escalated it were, according to pop cultural legend, some of the inspiration for Paddy Chayefsky when he wrote the screenplay for Network. If you're interested in the weird world of Chayefsky, Network, and his other film Altered States, you may read "Paddy Chayefsky and the Wonders of the Invisible World" by VISUP. It's a fascinating article, the first in a series, with references to Baal, Hecate, Kali, and Robin Goodfellow/Puck/A Midsummer Night's Dream. But I digress. 

That the fictional Chubbuck appears to the fictional Ewald in a post-suicide, ghostly state is one of the reasons this book fits into the paranormal/borderline horror - but clearly speculative - genre. Another character who fascinates because of the horror of his real-life story is Andrew Kehoe. 

Andrew Kehoe circa 1920. Public domain image.
Kehoe was the perpetrator of the worst act of school violence in U.S. history on May 18, 1927. He killed 38 schoolchildren using explosives. He also murdered his wife, killed five other adults, and committed suicide. An additional 58 people were wounded. Kehoe detonated a bomb at the Bath Consolidated School in Bath, Michigan. When rescue trucks arrived on the scene, Kehoe drove up in a vehicle rigged with explosives, killing himself and bystanders. Apparently he became upset with the town of Bath after he wasn't re-elected as the township clerk, and his farm was in the process of being foreclosed on. 

The fictional Kehoe in Ewald's novel is described as being remorseful for his actions. 

Almost all the characters based on real-life people died in some violent or tragic way, some of them from illnesses. Linda Gary, a cartoon voice-over artist, died from a brain tumor. Her voice would have been well-known to '80s kids like me because her credits included the Masters of the Universe and She-Ra cartoons - special favorites of my brother and me. She has an IMDB page and, of course, a Wikipedia page, but it's hard to find much more about her. 

But she, like all of the characters in the novel, gets a little extension on her fame when you read the book. You'll have to decide for yourself whether or not these people deserve to be included in the story. One might argue that some people, like Kehoe, deserve to stay buried in the past, because evil actions don't deserve any extra notoriety. Others would say that if we don't remember the past, we'll only be doomed to repeat it. Maybe there's something about mass violence that Kehoe's example can teach us even today. This book will make you think about things like that. It's dark, but very interesting. 

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