WARNING: mild spoiler ahead, for those who like to know no more about a novel's plot than what the back cover reveals.
All Irving Carlisle wanted was to find some more Suttlespyce (Number 17), the finest pipe tobacco he had ever smoked.
All Irving found in Otterwood, North Carolina -- home of his beloved Suttlespyce (Number 17) -- was some decidedly unfriendly locals.
Then he got lost, and found something else, too. The entryway to a different world. A very unpleasant different world.
Is it fair to criticize Stray Not Beyond for not telling the story I wanted it to tell? I've previously discussed the frustrations of having a novel side-step a specific plot point I found particularly intriguing in favor of pursuing a different agenda. But Stray Not Beyond takes the problem -- and thus my dilemma -- to an extreme.
The novel starts on a folksy, low-key note, as Irving recounts how a sample of the preternaturally sumptuous Suttlespyce (Number 17) pipe tobacco arrived, unsolicited, in his mail one day from a Theodamus Rroyhall in Otterwood, North Carolina, and how Rroyhall equally suddenly stopped responding to Irving's orders two years later. So Irving sets off for Otterwood to investigate.
In Otterwood, the locals start by giving Irving the run-around, and then become even more hostile when Irving persists. And although the novel's tone becomes increasingly dark, I thought I knew, at least generally, what I was in for: the story of Irving's investigation into the mysterious Rroyhall and his Suttlespyce (Number 17). I wasn't sure how dark the story would get, or exactly where the plot was headed. But the laid-back, appealing narrative style and intriguing plot had me primed and eager to see how the mystery would play out.
But then, on page 56, everything changes. Irving finds himself no longer in Otterwood, but in a quite literally different world altogether. From that point, the novel proceeds through an episodic series of surreal, hellish encounters as Irving struggles to find a way home. Although author Michael Pinkey ultimately does tie everything together in a fairly satisfactory manner, the story of Rroyhall and Suttlespice (Number 17) -- and, indeed, any story beyond Irving's bare struggle for survival -- takes a distinct back seat for the remainder of the story, as Stray Not Beyond essentially becomes a travelogue through a nightmare.
To be fair, Stray Not Beyond is a very well-written travelogue. Pinkey recounts the individual elements of Irving's nightmare journey with consummate skill, and individual scenes are genuinely creepy and effectively convey Irving's desperation and hopelessness. Unfortunately, these scenes never come together into a compelling overarching narrative: they remain a serial assortment of disparate events.
And so Stray Not Beyond is, above all, frustrating. Through page 55, I did not know exactly where the story was going, or even what genre the novel was going to end up being (it seemed capable of going anywhere from whimsical rusticity to black comedy or even violent thriller), but I did expect that the story as already started was going to continue. Unfortunately, when Irving loses his way, so too does Stray Not Beyond.
Stray Not Beyond is available as a $14.95 paperback (or $24.95 hardcover) from Barnes and Noble or Amazon or direct from iUniverse. Pinkey -- who appears to date not to have published anything else -- also maintains a bare-bones website for the novel.
David Zimmerman's Socket (available from Barnes and Noble or Amazon) also goes in a different narrative direction than I had initially expected. However, I have to admit that Zimmerman's direction works beautifully; indeed, Socket has quite simply become one of my favorite novels, period. I have more to say about Socket, but consider this a cliffhanger: check back next week for my review roundup of the last decade of winners (including Socket) of that thirty-year Labor Day weekend tradition, the 3-Day Novel Contest.