by Ross Raisin; New York, HarperCollins, 2008, 211 pages, $13.95
Dr. Crandell is a staff psychiatrist, Northern Navajo Medical Center, Shiprock, New Mexico.
In his first novel, Ross Raisin provides us with the tragic but comedic tale of one Sam Marsdyke, social outcast in a North Yorkshire town. Sam has more affinity with his beloved farm animals than with most humans but still longs for some form of validation from his own kind. He is destined, it seems, to be forever prisoner of his overbearing, brutish father and clueless mother, he seeks a kind of carnal salvation with the appearance of a 15-year-old girl, one of the "towns," a group of urbanites who increasingly are invading and co-opting his rural landscape. He cannot help but be drawn toward this luscious girl-next-door as she plays at being as rebellious as he but turns into his captive by a variety of circumstances, many well beyond his or her control.
This is a well-told story of the relentless incubation of sociopathy. It is social critique and a subtle endorsement of the marginalized—the rural poor of Yorkshire—and how they become more so, personified by Sam as a result of misunderstanding, his public humiliation, and ineffectual parents. At times grim, sardonic, and bleakly hilarious, the book details the devolution of our man Sam from wry critic of gentrification into captor of the girl, Josephine, and then into the trapped one.
Initially the reader might have some unsuspecting empathy for Sam when he churlishly spoils a picnic by some "ramblers" as they thoughtlessly loll about the fields and pastures of what he views as his own moors. In one of the more poignant passages he carefully gathers wild mushrooms to give to the newly arrived neighbors, only to forget to tell them about culling them for maggots, hence the predictable and shaming result. We readers are lulled by Sam's Yorkshire diction and his own colorful lexicon. We are recurrently tempted to root for Sam Marsdyke, the outclassed and hapless underdog, until the bones of his burgeoning psychopathology are laid bare by Raisin's inexorable plot.
Characters from the novels of Cormac McCarthy, J. M. Coetzee, and Kafka would feel at home in this small and brooding novel. There should be broad appeal for clinicians who encounter people like Sam. Engaging and ruthless, but ultimately ineffectual, this is the developing, unwinding mind of the victim-cum-sociopath. It is written in miniature within the rural penumbra of his grimly forbearing, uninformed mother, and his cruel, vindictive, tyrannical father, awaiting only Sam's final suggestive rumination at book's end. A character at once more self-reflective and observant than one might expect, a victim, then a victimizer, Sam, as we find out, is too clever by half. For those of us who routinely are called upon to assess judgment and insight in our clinical work, this book is a successful, darkly beautiful glimpse into how the trajectory of sociopathic development just might go.