Since 2005, Robert Vivian has been publishing the individual novels of the Tall Grass Trilogy, an ambitious project that, with its strange mixture of off-road grit and spirituality, can’t quite be compared to anything else out in the current American literary landscape.
The first novel in the series, The Mover of Bones, recounts the disturbing journey of Jesse Breedlove, who has been somehow called to dig up a young girl’s bones that were hidden in the cellar of a church. He then travels along the backroads of the country with the remains in a sack. Along the way he encounters people whose lives are transformed by those bones whose silence seems alive, a haunting presence like matches that set off the hidden spiritual spark within them.
Lamb Bright Saviors, the second novel, introduces us to Mr. Gene, an itinerant preacher who walks from town to town proclaiming his faith to anyone along the road, accompanied by Maddy, a girl he kidnapped years ago. As the novel opens, the preacher announces he will die that day, and his failing body is carried by a handful of men, who’d been fishing nearby, to the nearest home, that of a blind woman those same men had once terrorized years ago. As Mr. Gene lies in bed, preaching himself to death, the men and the blind woman remain by his side, transfixed by the pouring of crazy eloquence and their own shared and troubled history. As one of the men, Oly, says, “He says he picked us out of a lineup in the sky to die in front of, plucking us out of the clean lofty air for the blind lady’s house, where we had once staged the end of the world.”
In Another Burning Kingdom, the final installment of the trilogy just published in the University of Nebraska’s Flyover Fiction series, the disturbed recluse Jackson Purchase slaughters a herd of horses as a prelude to a long-planned act of domestic terrorism. His brother Lem drives across the country to stop Jackson, an act of compassion nearly as quixotic as Jackson’s madness.
Vivian, who is also an accomplished playwright, writes all three novels as a series of passionate voices, each one rapt with the shock of self-discovery. Vivian’s prose travels strange territory, mixing colloquial speech with the heightened language of spiritual insight, a music fusing dissonance and consonance like matches trying to spark a reader alert.
The following excerpt is the first chapter of Another Burning Kingdom.
The ghosts of Lem’s horses are screaming again. They sound like shrieking women falling from the sky. They circle round the house half a story high with their manes tracing gossamer wings in the moonlight. I’ve gotten to know them so good they’re like someone breathing right down on top of me. But only I have eyes bright enough to see them. Some of them look like bent, moaning trees before they rise up again to take on the stars staring down on all of creation. I never meant to kill Lem’s horses. But once you start in on something you have to finish the job, and nobody would say any different if they were up front about it. But hardly anybody the fuck ever is.
Lem knows but he won’t say.
He’s always not saying the most important things to me. I have a list of the speeches he won’t tell me that goes on a mile long in some tunnels in the ground. I’m his alpha and omega, and a few hundred other things besides. That’s how it is between us. Lem’s horses won’t leave me alone, and I accept full responsibility for it: all neighing commences the coming of the kingdom and you better get that straight in your head. One of the stallions has teeth the size of picture windows looking out on eternity. I’ve never heard of a man-eating horse before but maybe there are some you can corral if you know where to find them.
Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.
And he wasn’t bullshitting when he said it.
Lem is the best brother I could ever have but he thinks he’s failed me. I feel his sadness like a magnetic force field that doesn’t get any weaker with the miles. He never liked what I had to say about America, but it pours out of me in panoramic visions that light up the sky in nuclear pastels and radioactive snow that twinkles before it hits the ground. He says I’m crazy, and maybe I am. I know Lissa believes it. But I’ve seen the tears well up in his eyes when he said it. I love him so much it’s like an ache I can’t get rid of.
He’s my brother and best friend and like a father to me past our real father, who wasn’t worth a shit and tried to drown me once. But sometimes that means Lem has to flip sides and be an enemy, too. if it was all just one way we’d be more fucked than we already are. Lem’s older than me by a good seven years but it sometimes feels more like centuries. He sees no good use for violence, but I see its untapped potential everywhere around: you could throw a stone far out into the night in any direction and whatever it hit would be fit for a streak of destruction now and then. And that’s exactly where this nation is headed and where it needs to go, right into the mouth of the lion with burning flames for a mane.
But me and Lem always were two different halves of the same good book.
That’s why I had to kill his horses that time, hard though it was for me, and harder for him. Someone had to do it, but not all of them died right away. Horse blood isn’t like other blood, there’s more of a shimmer to it, like sheet metal.
I tried to explain it to Lem but I couldn’t keep the sobs from choking me like a net full of butterflies. I have a hard time saying the most essential things unless the spirit’s in me, and then there’s nothing I can’t say. I can reveal the world in a drove of speech. God gives it to me to say in brief bouts of clarity and then I’m shining with judgment in my eyes. I can’t help it either way. Lem knows that better than anybody, but he can’t bring himself to admit it. Because if he did everything he ever believed in would crumble down around him, which it will anyway. Only he can’t see it. There’ a plan that set all of this in motion and I’m just a small but necessary part of it. Lem isn’t imbued like me; he’s as fine and decent a man as there is. He’s weak when it comes to drinking and Lissa but I don’t hold that against him. God loves him like an acorn in his hand. It’s true I’ll shoot anyone that comes up to the house now, but not out of spite: I’m just doing what I have to do to make the Lord’s plan a go.
Lem’s horses don’t worry me so much. Without their bodies they can’t trample the ground. Their hooves are made of air so they can flock and scream all they want, their thunder has been washed away by a force greater than any stampeding herd.
How did I go about mowing them down? How did I shoot them one by one fourteen strong so they laid there like dark bleeding hills bringing swarms of flies from miles away? I’ll get to that before it’s over. I promise. I’ll explain it when the spirit comes upon me–when I can say it in words with a branding iron for my tongue. Until then I have to wait, locked and loaded. I’ve been up two nights straight and am working on a third. Adrenalin has been replaced by the flow of glory in my veins. My final vigil has commenced. I don’t expect to live twenty-four hours beyond it. God bless my last cigarette: its glow is sacred in His eyes. I’m waiting for Lem. I got ahold of him and he said he’s coming home to try to talk to me one more time. It’s not like the other times and I told him that. I’ve always known it would end like this. The other burning kingdom’s almost here.
Who dreamed me into existence?
Who dreamed you?
Jackson, I say, God made you this way for a reason–and with this reason comes a thousand sons and daughters, not through the propagation of your seed but the transmission of your deeds that must be carried out. That’s all it is, all it ever could be. All I have to do is wait a little longer, and it’s a waiting charged with holiness. It doesn’t hardly matter how long you live, only that you’re going to get reborn.
Rebirth has come. Everything’s been leading up to it. Lem’s horses have become whirlwinds, but they’ll settle down to dust eventually and go on back to being anthills. They’ll go back to where they came from, hauling their screams. I almost like them for company, even though they’re outside and I’m in here, smoking my last package of Pall Malls like a burning heap of rubble, panning the dark lip of the horizon that’s about to say something. If only I had ears enough to hear it.
Reprinted from Another Burning Kingdom by Robert Vivian, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright (2011) by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.