TOBY OLSON has described The Woman Who Escaped from Shame as a story about pornography and the search for buried treasure. Those familiar with Seaview, his 1983 PEN/Faulkner Prize winning novel, (a puzzle box about golf and dying of cancer) will know what to expect. The new novel is as much about how to write (and not to write) and imagine as it is about specific characters or plot. Olson has created a comtemporary fable, a complex fusion of ideas and events. A basic thriller plot revolves around Paul Cords, a surgical instrument salesman who witnesses the making of a porno film in Mexico and rescues one of a pair of miniature horses abused in the performance. What follows is a chase across Cords' own past, a reunion with the prostitute with whom he had his first sexual encounter many years before, several murders, and his discovery that the horses are linked to some treasure that may or may not be involved with a man who just might be his real father.
But on another level the novel seems to be rife with contradictions. Our expectations are enhanced -- and then sabotaged -- by stories that a multitude of characters invent, remember, read, or overhear. Some stories are unfinished, and no source is quite reliable. Cords himself suffers from some inexplicable amnesia, his past so lost in memory that it comes back to him in symbols. His unpredictable behavior and mental lacunae are irritating.
"As he told it, he realized how strange it was and he also realized that he was not sure of all of it, not even those parts he had been involved in. He kept feeling he was missing things, leaving them out, forgetting them."
This game-playing with reality and illusion is nothing new for Olson. The Life of Jesus was anchored in the biblical story as lived day to day by a Catholic boy in the 1940s. Seaview dealt with parallel couples, mirror images really, who chased each other across the U.S. (Olson always writes about time and movement). That book was anchored by golf. The new book's central image is the miniature horses, creatures both real and fantastic. The horses are more true-to-life, and more charming, than anything else in the book. They represent both innocence (angelic and sexual) and the quest for enlightenment, guiding us through the dangerous investigation (both the realistic story/stories and the risks of imagination), allowing both characters and readers to reach some understanding of duality, commitment and redemption.
Olson explores a return-to-Eden theme in the brother-and-sister relationship of Cords and the prostitute, Mary Grace, against the vivid backdrop of Mexico. Their fragile innocence is temporarily restored, but their idyllic romance (and unknowing incest) is the prelude to a fall from grace; they are expelled from Eden and captured by the mercenary treasure-seekers, the pornographers.
In spite of this, the horses lead us to the treasure. In their tiny hooves, engraved with hieroglyphs, they carry precious gems, a smuggler's cache. Their degradation in the thriller plot comes to exemplify the waste and shame of our material pursuits.
The novel's climax is a confrontation with the evil double, Parker -- who may be Cords' half-brother. And here, the novel falters. The final scenes are -- perhaps inevitably -- unconvincing. Olson gives way to the impulse to control and frame the story, to escort the reader to a particular message. Only the horses remain untainted.
Olson's done his work too well. We have become suspicious of the story that explains itself, and tells all. We lose faith. This is the problem many critics had with Seaview. Still, if that book is three-fourths of a great novel, this one is nine-tenths. Olson's getting better and better. After 20 years of writing (14 books of poetry as well as the two previous novels) this is his first book from a major publishing house. He's a storyteller who deserves a larger audience.
Richard Peabody is the editor and publisher of Gargoyle magazine.