Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

NBCC Featured Review: Steven G. Kellman on J. Robert Lennon

By Eric Banks

Critical Mass regularly features an exemplary review by a National Book Critics Circle member critic. Here, from the Quarterly Conversation, Steven G. Kellman reviews J. Robert Lennon’s Castle.

In his previous—and best-known—novel, Mailman (2003), J. Robert Lennon, a connoisseur of misanthropy, recounts the disintegration of a postal worker with faded dreams of glory as a physicist. Even as he makes his appointed rounds each day, fifty-seven-year-old Albert Lippincott detests his work and his clients. “He hated mail,” explains Lennon, “and he hated people—yes, because people were the ones who sent mail.” Eric Loesch is even less gregarious than that resentful mailman. At the end of Lennon’s latest—and fifth—novel, Castle, Loesch concedes that: “I was, in the end, a misfit.”

He begins the book by following a hallowed American tradition—taking to the woods. After purchasing 612 rugged acres near Gerrysburg, a small, moribund community in upstate New York, Loesch sets about making the dilapidated old house that sits on his secluded property habitable again. And he begins methodically exploring his domain, a dense, bosky expanse that, but for one mysterious white doe, seems devoid of fauna. Proud of his resourcefulness and self-reliance, he bristles at any hint of interest or sympathy from anyone in town. His sole connection to the world is a sister, Jill, whom he has not seen since their parents died, in an apparent murder-suicide twenty-five years ago. Residents of Gerrysburg who encounter Loesch during his brief forays to gather supplies are intimidated by what he calls “my trim profile, stern bearing, and unwavering gaze.” However, a reader’s curiosity is not so easily subdued, and one keeps turning pages to learn just what this man is up to. What exactly led him to put down stakes in this forsaken wilderness? Loesch presents himself as a man with a mission, but what precisely is it?

Though reticent about the past and his ambitions for the future, Loesch, who insists on fidelity only to facts, eventually reveals that he grew up in Gerrysburg, that his father loaned him out to an eccentric research psychologist named Avery Stiles for cruel experiments in behavioral modification, and that he was discharged from the Army after abusing prisoners in Iraq. Meanwhile, reconnoitering through his private forest, Loesch comes upon a rocky promontory and beside it, just beyond the legal boundary of his land, spies a hidden castle. Reveling in stealth and the guerrilla tactics he mastered in the military, he engages in a lethal struggle with its elusive, demented proprietor.

The stubborn determination with which Loesch tackles his solitary project marks him as a misbegotten heir to Walden Pond’s Henry David Thoreau, a deranged cousin to Lewis Medlock, the fanatical survivalist in James Dickey’s Deliverance. Like Allie Fox, the cranky Yankee utopian in Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, he has turned his back on slack, indulgent civilization. In contrast to his sister, whom he imagines as living “a life of promiscuity, rootlessness, and substance abuse,” Loesch maintains rigorous discipline. Despite having shed his military uniform, he soldiers on alone, scornful of the laxity that characterizes civilian society. “I am a man of some considerable courage,” he proclaims. “This is not a boast, merely a statement of fact.”

Single-minded Eric Loesch is not nearly as appealing a companion as Lennon’s antic mailman, Albert Lippincott. And, though built on madness, Castle lacks the madcap qualities of the earlier novel. It offers, instead, sustained immersion into the traumatized mind of a cunning malcontent. The illusion of total control both attracts and repels him. Loesch’s sovereignty over his own reclusive world is subverted by a series of uncanny occurrences; the novel’s eerie pacing suggests that the only monarchy is ruled by a Stephen King. Loesch acknowledges nostalgia for the freedom of a mere functionary: “There is no comfort like the comfort of following orders. There is no relief like being relieved of agency.” He also comes to accept the limits of his own powers: “Eventually I would learn that all human beings are inherently weak, and that our efforts to overcome that weakness were little more than pathetic sallies up the face of an impossibly high mountain.”

Anyone who titles a novel Castle must reckon with the ghost of Franz Kafka, and Lennon’s is a universe fraught with inscrutable, unatonable guilt. Loesch’s property is the site of an Indian massacre, his mind the continuing stage for memories of a torture fortress much like Abu Ghraib. Lennon falters a bit in constructing his narrator’s perspective; to accommodate the reader, Loesch sometimes pretends to be discovering things that he must already be aware of. But the novel’s considerable power derives from the cumulative force of familiar truths locked within the spirit’s castle keep.