Published by Untreed Reads, 2010
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Have you ever seen a friend after a separation and not quite recognized him at first glance? That’s what happened to me with Neil Plakcy’s new novel, The Outhouse Gang. In the past, the author’s works, mostly mysteries and some erotica, have been pretty high-test and this one is decidedly low octane.
I like to see an author taking a chance, which is the case here. Artistic courage separates the real writer from the hack. As I’ve said often, only the mediocre artist is always at his best. He reaches a certain plateau and never goes beyond it—often, in fact, never knows there is a “beyond.” But the true artist is never content, is always reaching, striving, trying to get it right, and righter still. Plakcy here has stepped away from his writing “comfort zone,” and that in itself is to be applauded. Did he get it right? Well, yes…mostly.
The story is set in the small Pennsylvania town of Stewart’s Crossing starting in 1963. To give their lives a little punch, a group of men steal an outhouse on the night before Halloween and leave it in front of the town hall. This becomes an annual event and the locals, not knowing who they are, dub them The Outhouse Gang.
From this somewhat slender thread the author hangs a series of vignettes, alternating from the viewpoints of the various men in the group, and covering the years up to 1988. This was a tumultuous time—the Vietnam war, the cultural revolution, hippies, drugs, the increasing independence of younger generations—and it’s interesting to see it as a backdrop (and a contrast) to the small town lives of the characters. This is a big canvas to cover, however, and the cast of characters is large, so much of the story is sketched in where sometimes I would like to have seen it painted large.
There’s some very lovely writing here, as one would expect from this author. Here, for instance, and very early on (giving you a good sense of what is to come) he tells you much about the marriage of the hardware store owner by saying little: “During the day he wore a canvas apron over his plaid shirt and jeans. Stray nails, twist-ties, plastic bags, washers and odd pieces of paper always ended up in the pockets of his apron. He’d take it off at the end of the day, puzzled by how much he had accumulated. It was like that with his marriage, too.”
It’s a joy to see this talented writer stretch his wings, but not entirely an unmitigated joy. A couple of bad habits that pop up here and either weren’t there in his writing in the past, or were so minor as to go unnoticed. For one, he has gotten into telescoping plot developments. We see almost all the punches coming before he lands them. There are very few surprises here.
For another, he tends now and again to talk down to the reader. “‘Remember that prank we pulled last year?’” one of the characters asks another. “Sandy laughed. ‘We stole an outhouse in the middle of the night and left it at the town hall,’ he said. ‘How could I forget?’” In reality, neither the other character nor the reader needed to be reminded of so much information. People talk more in shorthand when discussing something they both already know. Or, he could have edged the remarks with sarcasm simply by adding, at the end, “that.”
Still, the shortcomings are few and minor and most readers will enjoy the book. How well they enjoy it depends upon what one is looking for in a read. If you’re seeking heart-stopping excitement, this isn’t the place to look, and if you want to test wits with the author, you’ll probably have more fun with one of Mister Plakcy’s first rate mystery stories. Much of what I’ve read from this author in the past is challenging, the kind of fiction that charges boldly forward, where this novel tends to meander—like taking a stroll in a small town. Still, it’s a pleasant stroll on which he leads us and familiar to anyone who has lived in a town like this, or anyone who lived through the years covered. It succeeds, and admirably, on charm and a certain nostalgic grace, and those are virtues I think over neglected in today’s fiction-world. And I, for one, am glad to see a different side of the author.