This satisfying but exceedingly peculiar novel is the work of a writer who died, the dust jacket twice informs us, "just days after completing" it. It goes without saying that this is unfortunate; there is ample evidence in "Scorpio Rising" that R.G. Vliet was a writer of impressive gifts, and it is a pity we are to have nothing further from him. But however lamentable this may be, it remains that the novel must be judged on its merits rather than the unusual circumstances of its publication, and it further remains that this judgment must be mixed.
There's a lot of fine (but not overfine) writing in "Scorpio Rising," as well as a couple of genuinely interesting characters. Vliet had an intimate knowledge of Texas, where much of the novel takes place; he writes about the state and its people with an effective mixture of distance and affection. Here, for example, he describes the cemetery in Alto Springs:
"Everybody in town knows everyone here: the schoolteachers who became ranchers' wives, the sheriffs, the doctor who learned his anatomy dissecting dead Indians, the dry-goods clerk who window-peeped, the woman who grew fifty-two kinds of rose bushes and shrubs and flower plants in her yard year after year, even through three or four bad drouths, the blacksmiths and freighters and grocers and a projector operator from the movie house, town drunk who lost his false teeth at least once a week tossing up in the early morning hours at the curb around the square, barbers, mechanics, beauty-parlor operators and one who, with the bases loaded and two away, in the last inning of the ninth knocked a home run in the game with Junction City in 1923 and was 'never able to wear the same size hat again.' "
The speaker of that appealing sentence is Rudy Castleberry. He is a 22-year-old native of Alto Springs who, upon graduating from high school, was awarded a scholarship by his fellow townspeople that carried with it the stipulation that he must attend an out-of-state college. He chose Penn State, and now runs an office-supply store in Massachusetts that is owned by a classmate's father. He has a twisted spine caused by a congenital disease, but he bears his deformity with resignation and good cheer; his great regret is that women see him as a friend but not as a lover.
He's perfectly happy in the little town of West Hesper, but he misses Texas -- "I'd give my eyeteeth, all four of them, for the hot shade under the mesquite tree" -- and he is possessed by a suspicion that the reasons for his out-of-state scholarship may not have been entirely eleemosynary. There is an unmarked grave in the family plot, which sends out "the shock waves of an old violence in a Texas town that don't go away until the story's been told over and over." Could the grave be that of his grandfather? Could the story be one that touches his own life?
We find out soon enough. On a train trip to Texas, Rudy suddenly is transported to Houston in the year 1902; the novel's second part begins and Rudy vanishes from it, never to return. Instead we are in Alto Springs in the early years of the century, and our attention is turned to a lovely girl named Victoria Ann Castleberry. We are not long in figuring out that she is Rudy's grandmother; how she gets that way is the dark story that Rudy had sensed was there.
Victoria Ann is full of life and spunk, but she's also spoiled and willful. After her mother's early death she had been raised by her aunt and father, both of whom doted on her. Now, as a 17-year-old, she's engaged to a decent young fellow whom she quickly decides isn't good enough for her: "I want somethin' to happen to me. Ever'body gets married. You can be ugly and get hitched. Verdie Ruth Hudspeth got married, and she's ugly as sin. I want to travel, to see the capitals of the world, ride in motor cars, dance!" When the handsome son of a state senator comes to town, she is ready to be swept away by him; but to clear the way for that, she has to strike a Faustian bargain that, as all such bargains do, ultimately has awful consequences.
This is all quite interesting and handsomely described, and it is easy enough to see what it has to do with Rudy Castleberry. But his disappearance from the novel creates a void that Vliet never manages to fill. There are two stories in this novel: We are given as much of Victoria Ann's as we need, but Rudy's leaves us hanging. Thus "Scorpio Rising," which is in many respects accomplished, in the end seems incomplete.