Visits from the Drowned Girl, by Steven Sherrill

The quiet dignity of a beloved monster
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The Independent Culture

Last year's acclaimed debut novel by Steven Sherrill, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, finds a substantially weird central character trying to act like a regular guy. He is, after all, a minotaur, working as chef in a rib restaurant and trying to accommodate the awkward urges of men into his ancient, mythic past. In contrast, Sherrill's excellent second novel, Visits from the Drowned Girl, watches a regular guy lurch into increasingly weird behaviour.

Last year's acclaimed debut novel by Steven Sherrill, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, finds a substantially weird central character trying to act like a regular guy. He is, after all, a minotaur, working as chef in a rib restaurant and trying to accommodate the awkward urges of men into his ancient, mythic past. In contrast, Sherrill's excellent second novel, Visits from the Drowned Girl, watches a regular guy lurch into increasingly weird behaviour.

Benny Poteat is a tower jockey, who scrambled up anything as a kid and who now turns a buck by painting water towers or mending masts. He's good, careful, and sees the world from an unusual angle. He quietly witnesses the glorious danger of broom fires rolling across fields, or a fist-fight that ends in handshakes and fellatio, or a committal whose mourners run around the grave to avoid the cemetery's sprinkler system.

One day, Benny notices a young woman on the bank of a swollen river, placing a camera on a tripod. She takes off her clothes and walks, without hesitation, until the current has sucked her under.

Perplexed, Benny clambers down, drives to the river and gathers her relics into the back of his clanky old truck: folded clothes, tripod and camera, nine videos (including the one of her suicide) and a business card for Rebecca Hinkey, manager of a gentrified apartment complex. He fully intends to report the bizarre spectacle but, through a delicious slapstick sequence of misadventure on his drive back, he chooses to leave the items hidden in his laundry crate.

Why? Benny doesn't know, and Sherrill, wisely, doesn't push. That gives his novel the keenly whetted edge of anticipation for calamity following Benny's lapse in civic duty.

An astute chronicler of relationships, Sherrill maps out the subtleties of game and tease between women and men, as well as the stark lines of physical and emotional violence which, if crossed, should trigger moral actions or penalties. Benny quickly locates Rebecca, establishes that her sister Jenna is the drowned girl, both daughters of the thunderous evangelist Deacon Hinkey - but he refrains from revealing his secret. This withholding gives Benny an involuntary thrill of power, the first drip of acid that will corrode his marginal existence.

Comfortable lies, exploitation, meanness and malice ensue. He is aware of his downward course but incapable of arresting it. Like the Minotaur, Benny also works weekends at a restaurant, and Sherrill again conveys the grubbing existence of low-key jobs with an unassuming dignity. Against this humdrum life, Sherrill leans the accumulating brutal behaviour of his new minotaur: a regular guy distinctly surprised to discover the beast within him.

The bizarreness of human actions fascinates Sherrill, and this novel generates an emotional suspense beyond its simple plot because of Benny's ambiguous, destructive impulse. Benny becomes a monster but, in a curious way, is still beloved.

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