It begins, like so many dark stories do, with a corpse. Jesse, a latter-day hippie with a deck of tarot cards and a decidedly idiosyncratic take on the scriptures, lies dead. Stephen Grissom, a lonely computer programmer drawn in by Jesse’s messianic charisma, will soon follow. The identity of the murderer isn’t immediately clear. Nor will it become so. John Gist’s second novel, Lizard Dreaming of Birds, isn’t concerned with forensics and sleuthing; it simply surveys the ever-increasing carnage that Gist implies is symptomatic of our world gone wrong.
It’s a dead world, full of Denny’s and Super Wal-Marts, and empty of any spirituality. Historical monuments stand deprived of meaning. Tours are given and trinkets are sold in former prisons. Waitresses, dressed in the uniforms of Confederate and Union soldiers, serve bored patrons.
Through this arid cultural wasteland skulks Jubal Siner, Jesse and Stephen’s former roommate, and more than likely, their murderer. As a boy, Jubal caught sight of a horned god, “half-man, half-beast.” Now, he travels America, trying to reconnect with that vision of essential truth and power on some subconscious level. On his trail is Lita, a former lover, intent on joining him in his mission. The novel is composed of their interior monologues, along with the voices of others, such as Lorelei, Lita’s born-again sister, and Ramona, Jubal’s one true love, with each character aimlessly pursuing amorphous goals.
What does Jubal’s quest to find his horned god have to do with Jesse and Stephen’s murders? Good question. On a thematic level, it’s clear: Jubal dispenses with a fatuous New Age pseudo-messiah and his simpering acolyte in his ruthless quest to rediscover the primal, vital energy of that divine being. On a literal level, it’s much murkier; although Gist proffers up pages of Jubal’s innermost thoughts, the character never gets around to telling us exactly why it is that he’s blazing his bloody trail.
Although the homicidal Jubal is the most inscrutable of characters in Lizard Dreaming of Birds, it’s not at all obvious why anyone in the novel does anything. Characters trudge randomly across the pages, speaking like undergraduate philosophy papers as they go.
“Wisdom is a woman and loves only a warrior,” muses Lita as she attempts to find Jubal. Joyce, a married woman about to engage in a hotel room tryst with Jubal, thinks to herself, “Everything was as it should be, connected, eternally creating and destroying, never missing a beat. I experienced in fifteen minutes what mystics spend lifetimes searching for: perfect moments strung together like popcorn on thread.” When she arrives at his room, Jubal is watching a televised boxing match, and he tells Joyce, “Boxing . . . is like sex, each participant trying to knock the other right out of this world for a few minutes. Animal strategy.”
It’s hard to endure. It would be easier if this earnest, turgid prose were in service of some half-interesting ideas, but it’s not. Gist’s ideology is plain. Copious consumerism is bad. Nature and communal bonds are good. To give these ideals more weight, Gist adorns the novel with totemic imagery, as demonstrated by the title, and nods to classical mythology. In one particularly clumsy example, Lita examines a saloon’s painting of a “giant swan mount[ing] a busty woman”—Lita/Leda and the swan, get it?
Never mind wondering what bar in the world would hang such a work, which would turn even the most hardened drinker off his beer. Never mind making much sense of much of this novel, actually. It’s a slice of sensationalism that decries senseless violence and a verbose treatise for a return to simplicity. It’s a portrait of our wicked world that bears no resemblance to reality whatsoever.