How do you defeat a monster without becoming a monster yourself? Nietzsche warned us of this danger years ago (“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”).
That’s the big question in Scowler, a brutal Midwestern gothic novel by Daniel Kraus. Ry’s father, Marvin, is a monster by any definition. He abuses his wife, terrorizes his children, bullies everyone he comes into contact with. Marvin even bullies the very land he farms.
“Marvin Burke talked too much; he was too tall, too thin; his muscles were too rangy; his head was shaved down to a gleam they found unnatural. They suspected the man was a horror and they were right” (5). So how does a young boy stand up to such a monster? Ry managed it once, after his father committed an act of violence against his wife so heinous that I literally had to stop reading for a while. But when meteors fall in southeastern Iowa in 1981 (as they actually did), Marvin escapes from prison to return and tend to his unfinished business at the farm.
How can Ry summon the courage to stand up to his father again? How can he keep his mother and his younger sister safe from Marvin’s depredations? Perhaps by once again summoning the Unnamed Three, a trio of childhood toys whom in Ry’s imagination become real-life protectors. A stuffed bear with a British accent, a figure of Jesus Christ, and the creepy folk art figure Ry named Scowler—these are his talismans. They helped Ry defeat his father the first time. But can Ry defeat his father again without becoming his father?
“He straightened, for a moment a man and nothing more or less. Death, violence; survival, violence. These equations were jumbled, had been in his classroom history books, would be till humankind’s dusk” (272).
Scowler is exhausting to read, not because it is tedious (far from it), but because its searing portrayal of evil makes you as the reader feel threatened. Highly recommended.