Written in the decade of the crucifixion-like death of Matthew Shepard and the gruesome dragging death of James Byrd, Jr., A Density of Souls, by young writer Christopher Rice (progeny of gothic writer Anne Rice and poet and painter Stan Rice), is a mystery and gay-coming-of-age story that is powered, in part, by the current of hate pulsing through America. This is a time when gay bars are bombed, Fred Phelps sports a website called godhatesfags.com, loose cannons like Timothy McVeigh kill for hateful ideas they defend to the last, and Columbine High killer classmates Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold kill for hateful ideas they don’t even understand.
In an interview with januarymagazine.com, Rice described the gay community within New Orleans, a city he’s lived in since he was ten, as a cosmopolitan island amidst a largely rural, oftentimes foreboding state. “Klan loonies and psychos” could be found just 30 minutes outside of the city. “. . . I remember one night this psycho walked into a drag queen bar in the French quarter with a grenade and a gun, ready to pull the pin,” said Rice. This experience may have spawned Density‘s “Army of God”, a hate group holed up in the swamp, whose members drape themselves in dead cottonmouths and moccasins and cite the usual biblical passages that are, in these times, as devoid of sense as shed snakeskin. The founder of the “Army”, a young man who spirals into rage spawned from self-hatred, is a former schoolmate of our story’s protagonist. Indeed, Rice’s inspiration for the “Army” could have come from any of a number of headlines in today’s newspapers.
Growing up in an environment like this, who needs a mother like Anne Rice, author of horror novels such as Interview with the Vampire, to scare the beejeezers out of you? Rice minimizes his mother’s influence on his writing, ironically citing instead one of his favorite movies as Jaws and one of his favorite novels as Stephen King’s The Stand. Set in a boggy swamp on a foggy night - a.k.a. New Orleans, 1992—the story opens in a cemetery, where the dead are entombed above the ground to prevent their drowning when the water table rises, which happens often in this soggy land which lies well below sea level. A thunderstorm is rapidly closing in on four young friends who are playing hide-and-seek amongst the tombs and mausoleums, one belonging to the suicidal father of our young protagonist, blond, fey Stephen. The children find themselves locked in the cemetery as the thunderstorm closes in. Unable to escape and very spooked, they huddle close and the son of the entombed cites a poem that bobs to the surface of the story now and then: “Fear cannot touch me . . . it can only taunt me . . .the dead stay dead, they cannot walk.” I was lured in from the first, chilling paragraph.
Fast forward to high school: picture the tension between buff football jocks (including one who is particularly beautiful and capable of reciting poetry) and fem theatre queens, add into the mix mysteriously fracturing friendships and the usual sexual anxiety that accompanies the teenage years, and you’ve got grist for all kinds of bizarre behavior. It is at this time that Stephen begins his battle with headline-grabbing monsters that just won’t die: homophobia, adultery, incest, alcoholism, bulimia, domestic violence, rape, insanity, abandonment, a tragic accident, murder, suicide and a suicide that might not be a suicide. Before the story ends, there will be a shootout and a bombing, a highly stylized near-crucifixion that takes place in a bell tower, bells a-ringing, during a too-neatly contrived hurricane named (all too obviously), “Brandy.”
Indeed this story is awash in alcohol, as was, apparently, Rice himself, who was “burned out” on many types of excesses by the time he reached legal age. “I was insane,” said Rice in an interview with usatoday.com. “If I had lived in medieval times, I would have been burned or stoned. I was a temperamental, emotionally imbalanced and highly sensitive kid.” Seeing friends strung out on coke and, despite the abundant information available to them, becoming infected with HIV, an exhausted and cynical Rice found the strength to take a step back from his extreme life and make some quiet space to write. What he created in his first published book is a story that includes most every trouble you’d find represented in a Benetton ad campaign, if one were focused solely on contemporary life in the US. As the secrets of the Charbonnet family slowly bob to the surface, the reasons for the odd behavior of the central characters begin to make sense. Family secrets are fertile ground for mystery, as Rice knows. “I was profoundly affected by the fact that my parents didn’t even tell me I had a sister until I was the age she was when she died,” said Rice, “Coming to terms with their reasoning behind that lead me creatively to explore secrets and the justifications we have for keeping them” (usatoday.com).
Perhaps due to the influence of his poet father, Rice uses poetry as foreshadowing and riddle; like the opening poem which is meant to console but more often then not haunts, there is another poem that reaches from the grave of Stephen’s suicidal father, alluding to secrets: “What fires burn the heart, From which God did these agonies start? . . . This world calls for you to cry.” Rice’s prose is sparse, but it is also rich with imagery, suggestion, and frequent poetry:
Stephen now dreamed in music, a clamor of remembered voices, a density of souls in which no individual spoke the truth, but in which the accumulated layers of lies and loss gave way to a truth rare and great and capable of stripping wounds from a part of the world.
Alas, Rice’s relentless Benetton-like portrayal gets stuck in the muck, at times. For example, one of the catalysts for the growing list of murders—which the New Orleans police are marvelously inept at solving - happens when a high-school boy is run over by a garbage truck while crossing the street to a football game: “Angela glanced over to see the fractured word -ANITATION perfectly framed in the driver’s side window . . . The brakes of the Thiobodaux sanitation truck hissed as Alex Darby’s neck gave way under the weight of his upturned body.” When I read this, I’m afraid I laughed—but not about the tragic accident, of course. Given the obvious formulas he’s applied (and the lack of humor to be found anywhere else in the story), it’s clear that the young Rice does not yet possess such dark humor or subtle sophistication in his writing to purposely prompt (or avoid) such ghastly laughter, but he’s well on his way to achieving it. The heavy-handed symbolism in Density, such as the too-easy-to-hate bad guy’s hand impaled by a nail (I see the influence of a vampire impaled with a stake creeping in . . .), is a style I attribute to the youth of the writer. Rice is writing another mystery, set on a northeastern college campus, which explores the power that one has to alter one’s identity once away from school, home and parents. The terrain and the characters will be considerably different from those in Density, and I expect we’ll see a graceful maturity emerging in his writing.
Flaws and all, A Density of Souls is an engaging story of life in modern America. And who doesn’t love a good mystery, especially when one can really relate to it?