JOHNNY STANTON's Mangled Hands is such an oddity that it confounds description or comparison. One attempt might be to suggest Miguel Angel Asturias' Mulata speeded madly up: a 300-page surrealist explosion drawing on imagery from Native American legends, but without the sexual heat that steams up the Guatemalan work.
The novel is virtually plotless, although bizarre events crowd every page. Tarcisius Tandihetsi, the 14-year-old Huron narrator, is returning from a trading expedition together with his father, Eustace, and his "other father," a French Jesuit priest called Blackrobe. They are set upon and captured by the Poison Snake People, a traditional enemy, and also attacked by the Killer Yellow Dogs, led by an apostate Huron named Snake Tooth. This fray sets the book spinning like a huge kaleidoscope; characters are relentlessly transformed, dismembered and reassembled, and exploded and reconfigured without interruption until the apocalyptic conclusion is reached.
Much of the novel consists of fragmented accounts of the ordeals Blackrobe and the Hurons endure under captivity by the Poison Snake People. The Snake people themselves are under attack from dreadful invisible animals engendered by a godlike giant snake, and much of the action takes the form of magical events which erupt, reach enormous size, vanish and are forgotten within a single paragraph. Some idea of the pace can be had from the 18th century-style summaries with which Stanton prefaces each chapter. The partial content of one chapter midway through Mangled Hands, for example, is:
"Antler Face's head, manhood and antlers are knocked off and they run away. . . Tarcisius forms a clay muskrat inside his head and it jumps out to help search for the missing parts. . . The muskrat finally leads them up a white ladder then jumps back inside Tarcisius's head. . . They climb back onto a wide ledge where there is a large birch bark chapel surrounded by a warm stream . . . As they cross a bridge they see pictures from everywhere in the trails of steam and the hazy depths of the stream itself. . ."
Each of these events actually takes place in the narrative, and each subdivides into many equally striking sub-events. The grotesquerie never subsides; the dynamic of the book is essentially level -- a steady stream of highly-colored imagery shot out at the highest level of energy.
Even the most resistant reader will be amazed at Stanton's powers of imagination in conceiving this collage-like structure. The only obvious borrowed technique is the cut and fold-in method made famous by William S. Burroughs. In one chapter called "Hair," for example, a surreal quality is achieved by plugging the noun "hair" into the text at regular intervals:
"Everything I knew about hair passed in front of me like a vision. I thought my other father could have his hair cut off at any moment, or his head, or his manhood, or his sacred hands. But that didn't bother him at all, he just continued what he was saying from the other side of his hair."
SOME READERS may be reminded of Max Ernst's collage novels like A Week of Kindness, where strong images insistently repeat themselves in the wildest and most divergent contexts, creating a dreamlike mood. But to achieve these effects, Stanton pays a price. The crux of the book is the torture and martyrdom of Blackrobe. The mangled hands of the title belong to him, and they recur in various forms at important points throughout the phantasmagorical narrative, and Stanton links them to the mangled hands of the crucified Christ. But the novel's methods prevent Blackrobe's death from having any real emotional force. It is simply another stunning image to be marveled at.
Mangled Hands seems to define its own genre and exhaust it at the same time. It may hypnotize young writers, but it is hard to imagine it spawning any imitators. Its problems are similar to those encountered by post-Webern serialist composers in Europe during the '50s: if every part of a composition is constantly in motion, the result is a paradoxical illusion of stasis. Any page of Mangled Hands astounds the reader with the fertility of imagination it reveals, but sustained reading leaves the impression of a book which goes everywhere and nowhere, and the end comes not a minute too soon. Still, Mangled Hands is so unusual and original that many readers with a serious interest in fiction will find it liberating.
Like such other highly unconventional novels as Frederick Ted Castle's Anticipation, Mangled Hands achieved a considerable prepublication reputation as the manuscript circulated for a number of years among New York writers sympathetic to the avant garde. It will be interesting to see how it will be received by the broader public which now has access to it in Sun and Moon's beautifully produced edition.