The Lizard’s Ardent Uniform

by Chris F. Holm

(from the short story collection, The Lizard’s Ardent Uniform, Veridical Dreams Vol. I)


Kyle Williams was sleeping. He was sleeping, and this was just a dream. There was no monster in his backyard.

At least, that’s what he told himself—although his eyes told him something else entirely.

His alarm clock glowed 3:17. Kyle’s mother had put him to bed nearly seven hours ago. He’d been sleeping soundly until a few minutes back, when he was roused by a short, sharp rap that echoed through the night, and a subsequent lessening of the darkness all around him.

Light, faint and white like the moon’s, spilled in through his bedroom window.

But tonight, Kyle knew, the moon was new. It said so on the astronomical calendar that hung above his desk. That calendar, along with his very own reflector telescope, was gift from his father—or, more accurately, a bribe—given to him shortly after they left Boston for Santa Fe.

Kyle’s father had been a tenure-track professor of physics at MIT when Ardent Industries came calling, and Kyle himself had been happily ensconced in third grade at The Bellwether Academy, which he’d attended since pre-K. He wasn’t present for the phone call, but he remembered afterward listening in on his parents’ conversation from the upstairs landing of their Beacon Hill row house, his right cheek pressed against the balusters as he strained to hear.

“Are you sure you want to do this, Eric? Leave MIT? Uproot Kyle?”

“For the chance to have the lab of my dreams, and all the funds I’d ever need to continue my research? For the chance to prove to the world that limitless clean energy is not only theoretically possible, but attainable in our lifetime? Allie, how could I possibly turn that down?”

Apparently, he couldn’t, because soon after, they packed their things and drove the family Volvo to their new home—a sprawling ranch-style house on the outskirts of Santa Fe, with russet-colored desert all around. Ardent paid to have their belongings shipped ahead of them, so when they arrived, their furniture was already set up—their dark-stained Colonial pieces looking awkward and out-of-place in this rustic, Southwestern setting. Kyle had barely spoken in the four days it took them to make the drive. He was too heartsick. He missed his old school, his old house, his old life. But when he walked into his bedroom to find amidst his old belongings, a brand new Celestron NexStar SLT Series 130 SLT telescope, his foul mood evaporated.

“I thought you might enjoy that,” said his father from his doorjamb with a grin. “You’ll see a lot more stars here than you ever could in Boston. Too much light pollution there to make them out, even on a clear night. But way out here, who knows what you might see?”

His father was right. In his whole life, Kyle had never seen so many stars as he had that first night. And thanks to his telescope, he soon found there was more to the night sky than he’d ever imagined. The pock­marked surface of the moon. The reddish haze of the Orion Nebula. The majesty of Saturn’s rings. The monster in his backyard.

When that unearthly glow shone through his bed­room window and cast long shadows of his telescope on its tripod, he slipped out of bed and padded, barefoot and pajama-clad, over to the window for a look. What he saw was a beam of light shining down upon a figure in the darkness, some thousand feet of scrub-strewn desert away. At this distance, Kyle could make out nothing of the man—for at that point, he still assumed it was a man—so he aimed his scope in his direction. All he got for his trouble was a blurry mess. But when he dialed back the magnification and adjusted the focus, a figure resolved, standing in an undulating column of white. And that figure was not human.

It was human-sized, at least. Somewhere between five-five and six feet, Kyle guessed, although it stood in a strange, feral half-crouch, which made its full height hard to estimate. It had two arms, two legs, and a head, each in the usual place. But its skin—every inch of which was visible, on account of the creature was naked—was plated with thick, green scales like a lizard’s. Its hands and feet, while broadly humanoid, terminated in nasty looking claws that glinted like onyx in the strange, pulsing light and seemed capable of retracting at will, because they twitched as if testing the air around the beast, and the ground beneath its feet. Its head, which was tilted to the heavens as though basking in the light’s glow, put Kyle in mind of a boa con­strictor. Its eyes glistened like puddles of black ink, occasionally clouding over for a moment when the creature blinked—translucent nictitating membranes sliding across its eyes like an eclipse viewed on fast-forward.

When Kyle looked into those eyes, he had a sudden, panicked thought the creature could see him, and he hit the floor. But when his galloping heart slowed to a trot and he screwed up the courage to peek through the eyepiece once more, he realized the lizard-beast hadn’t moved: it was still staring up at the unseen light-source high above. Kyle wondered what could possibly generate so bright a beam. He followed the beam upward with his telescope until it dwindled to no more than a single strand of spider-silk bisecting the crushed velvet of the night sky, but he saw no source. He increased the magnification, and the beam widened.

Using that method—an upward tilt until the beam dwindled down to nothing followed by an increase in magnification—he followed the light back to its source, a spinning disc of deeper dark against the starry black. And as he zoomed in upon the aperture from whence the undulating beam sprang, his reflector scope amplifying the light’s intensity, a strange sensation overtook Kyle. It began as a hum deep inside his inner ear, a rattle in his molars. And then, at once, he heard them.

Heard wasn’t quite right. It was more like he and they—the creature on the ground, and the one with whom it was conversing on the ship—occupied the same headspace. Ideas flew back and forth between them in a rush, all filtered through the limited experi­ence of Kyle’s eight-year-old mind.

From the ship, an interrogative barrage of images. A four-star general, his face unseen, his chest spangled with multicolored medals. A discarded pair of cover­alls, plucked off the floor. A policewoman adjusting her belt and putting on her hat.

Did you acquire the uniform?

The beast below’s reply registered in Kyle’s mind as a box checked on a to-do list, a big thumbs-up, a finish line proudly crossed.

The ship, its tone somehow once more questioning: A hand bashing through glass marked IN CASE OF EMERGENCY and retrieving a fire-ax. A cartoon bur­glar wearing a raccoon-like mask over his eyes and tiptoeing through the darkness, a bag slung over his shoulder. A light bulb glowing ever brighter, and then bursting. Steam billowing from the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant.

What about the … and here, Kyle’s mind struggled to grasp the creature’s meaning. It was somewhere between power source and weapon in his mind. But before he could reconcile the images his brain had been bombarded with, the creature on the ground replied; his mother’s kitchen timer approaching zero, a clock just seconds from striking midnight.

Then, suddenly, the tone changed. The light grew … agitated somehow. Angry. Kyle’s mind flooded with red-tinted images of an ear pressed against a wall, a TV cop wearing a wire.

They knew someone was listening.

The light blinked out, plunging Kyle into night’s full dark. Kyle hit the deck, knocking over his telescope in his haste. A cold sweat broke out across his back and neck. He lay there in the darkness trembling for what seemed like forever.

Helpless. Exposed. Vulnerable.

Eventually, his fear of staying put overwhelmed his fear of moving. He belly-crawled from his spot beneath the window back to his bed, and then—gathering his courage—leapt off the floor, tossing his blankets high into the air. He landed in the boy-sized divot at the center of his mattress as they settled over him.

Kyle lay that way for hours, his fear of the lizard-beast bursting in to find him balanced somewhat by a child’s faith in the mystical protection afforded by pulling the covers over one’s head.

And then, as the coming sun painted orange the eastern horizon, he slept.


*   *   *


Kyle tossed and turned well into morning, trying in vain to catch up on the sleep the monster in his yard had stolen from him. He ignored his mother’s 8 a.m. urgings to get up, and her attempts to bribe him with chocolate chip pancakes at ten. But it was no use; sleep was fleeting, and when it came, so too did nightmare visions of lizard-beasts hunting for him in the darkness—of spotlights zigzagging across the desert floor as half-seen ships above searched high and low. So instead, he lay beneath the covers, queasy from hunger and exhaus­tion both, but too frightened to come out.

“I’m worried about him, Eric,” said his mother from just outside his door, shortly after her failed pancake bribe. “He’s been in bed all morning, and refuses to come out.”

“Maybe he’s sick.”

“He’s not, as far as I can tell. His forehead felt normal, and he doesn’t sound congested. I think he’s … frightened?”

“Probably just had a nightmare.”

“Some nightmare. Will you talk to him?”

A long pause. A sigh. And then Kyle’s dad said, “If it’ll make you feel better, sure.”

Kyle heard, but did not see, the door open. Felt the mattress rock beneath the sudden weight of his father, as he sat down on the edge of the bed.

“Hey, kiddo, you okay?”

Kyle nodded beneath the blankets.

“You know I’d find that more convincing if you’d come out of there.”

Reluctantly, Kyle poked his head free.

“Rough night?”

Kyle nodded again.

“Bad dreams?”

“I guess.”

“You guess?”

Kyle shrugged. “Seemed pretty real to me.”

“You want to talk about it, maybe?”

Kyle shook his head.

“Sometimes talking through a bad dream helps you feel better. You realize how silly it sounds when you say it out loud, and it stops being scary.”

He waited, but Kyle said nothing. “Okay,” he said, “I won’t make you. But your mom’s pretty worried about you. You think you could maybe come out and get some breakfast so she knows you’re okay?”

“I suppose,” Kyle said.

“Attaboy,” his dad said, tousling Kyle’s hair. “C’mon. I hear tell she’s making pancakes.”

The two of them walked hand-in-hand down the hall to the kitchen. Right before they entered the room, Kyle’s dad exclaimed, “Look what I found!”

For a moment, Kyle had the irrational fear that his kitchen would be full of angry lizard-monsters, all slavering at the chance to sink their teeth into his tender flesh. But when they rounded the corner, there was no one in the kitchen but Kyle’s mother. She was mixing up a bowl of pancake batter, and she beamed when she caught sight of him. “Hey, sleepy-head,” she said. “You hungry?”

Kyle nodded.

“Good,” she said, flicking on the stovetop to heat the skillet. “What about you?” she asked her husband.

“Starving,” he said, “but I’ve got to stop into the lab. In fact,” he said, looking at his watch, “I should have been there twenty minutes ago.”

“You have to eat,” she said.

“I know,” he replied. “But I’m already late, and you haven’t even started cooking yet.”

“Promise you’ll grab something on the way?”

“I promise.”

Kyle watched his dad lean in and give his mom a peck on the cheek. Watched her fingers graze his chest as he pulled away, a simple gesture of affection. Suddenly, the horrid images of last night that plagued him well into this morning seemed a world away: a bad dream fading into distant memory.

“Later, kiddo,” said his dad as he pushed open the screen door and stepped outside.

“Later, Dad!” Kyle called back, smiling.

But as the screen door’s old spring yanked it closed, and its wooden frame clacked against the jamb, Kyle’s blood ran cold. Because he knew at once that was the short, sharp rap that roused him late last night. That had brought him to the window in the first place.

The Lizard's Ardent Uniform

The Lizard’s Ardent Uniform, Veridical Dreams Vol. I is available from BEAT to a PULP books.

What did it mean? Had that monster tried to get into the house? He didn’t know, but he was sure now what he’d seen hadn’t been a dream. Which meant they weren’t safe here. Which meant he had to tell someone.

He looked to his mom, but she was busy cooking pancakes, and wasn’t paying him any mind. Not that she’d believe me anyways, he thought.

But Dad might.

Kyle ran to the screen door. Tried to call out to his dad. But the words died on his lips, and all that came out was a strangled wheeze.

Because as he reached the door, he saw his dad crouched in the driveway like a feral animal, his head tracking slowly from left to right. Kyle followed his dad’s gaze, and soon spotted the object that had at­tracted his attention: a dun brown deer mouse, scurrying across their cracked dirt drive.

As its path across the driveway brought it near to Kyle’s dad, his father leapt quick as death, and came up with the squirming rodent in his hands. Then he snapped its neck, and the poor mouse squirmed no more.

And as Kyle watched, he tilted his head back, opened his mouth wide—revealing a second mouth inside it brimming with sharp glinting teeth, like a snake’s—and lowered the dead mouse into it by its tail.

Then the thing wearing Kyle’s dad climbed into the family Volvo and took off for Ardent Industries, the dirt kicked up by the tires hanging heavy in the air.

Chris F. Holm was born in Syracuse, New York, the grandson of a cop who passed along his passion for crime fiction. His work has appeared in such publications as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2011. He’s been an Anthony Award nominee, a Derringer Award finalist, and a Spinetingler Award winner. His “Collector” novels, published by Angry Robot books, recast the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp.
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My dinner with Allen Ginsberg


Allen Ginsberg

Photo of Allen Ginsberg from Revista de Cultura.

The Beat 1950s were over, crowded out by the Beatles, the assassination of JFK, Vietnam, LSD, Flower Power, and Easy Rider. Jack Kerouac had just died at 47 of drink and Catholic bad karma, and so had Neal Cassady at 41, while on the road in Mexico. It was 1969 or 1970. And I, in my first year as a college teacher in northern Pennsylvania, was having dinner with Allen Ginsberg.

Allen had accepted a spot on the college’s speakers series and would fill an auditorium for an hour on the following day. A colleague in the English Department had picked him up at the Elmira airport and was entertaining him for the evening. Would I care to make a fourth for dinner?

I didn’t know what to expect. A diffident soul finishing a doctoral dissertation on English Restoration drama, I had hardly any academic grounding in American Lit, especially the thread of American poetry that happened to connect two controversial collections of it, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Ginsberg’s Howl. My background in literary studies stopping somewhere short of 1700, I had little to show off and no scholarly agenda to bring to dinner conversation with a living celebrity poet.

Not that Ginsberg was a celebrity in the 15-minutes-of-fame way the word has come to mean today. His having been the subject of a Playboy interview, you could say back then he’d been famous for a whole month. Besides being a recognized poet of some standing, he was also a vocal advocate of the antiwar movement that had filled the streets of Chicago with noise and police batons during the 1968 Democratic convention and continued to rage on after Richard Nixon’s election. After that dinner I would see him again on TV talk shows and at demonstrations protesting the war. He was a recognizable public figure in those turbulent times.

I don’t have a memory of what I expected that particular evening. Knowing me, I was probably hoping to simply speak when spoken to without dripping soup on my chin. What I didn’t expect was the company of a man who was so relaxed and unselfconscious that he put his hosts and me completely at ease. He was like an old friend who happened to be passing through town and stopped in for a hello.

It’s been too many years to remember anything we talked about as we ate. But I recall one thing he said before we sat down together. It involved the front and back covers of a Time magazine that had caught his eye. Holding it out to us so we could see, he observed the contrast between the graphic war coverage on the front and the colorful advertisement on the back, both of them images, I think, of young men, but together picturing a split consciousness between battlefield carnage and commercialism. It was a kind of moment you might have expected to characterize the rest of our talk around the table, but Ginsburg was, I believe, too much a polite guest to dominate dinner conversation that way.

Later that same evening, he did something else I’ve never forgotten. A group of students gathered at the home of another faculty member and, seating being in short supply, many of us we’re sitting on the floor, Allen included. The kids were a little awed and doing their best to be well mannered. Mostly the product of small high schools from small-town Pennsylvania and the foothills of Appalachia, they were also more than a generation removed from what passes for undergraduate behavior today.

One, a young man, began saying something to Allen, who stopped him and asked about some disability of the boy’s. It may have been a stutter. The exact words I no longer remember, only the kindness of his acknowledgment that he had noticed the boy’s difficulty and was not going to worsen it by pretending it didn’t exist. It was one of the most telling moments, for me, of his entire visit. A moment about honesty, consideration, and generosity.

By complete contrast was the highlight of his visit to campus and his reason for being there. He stood at the front of a large auditorium I remember as standing-room-only. After delivering some prepared remarks, he then read to us from his own poetry, accompanied by a small harmonium. And I heard for the first time how his poetry was meant to be heard—not spoken, but chanted. The experience was powerful and moving, and I knew that if I had heard any of Howl that way before that dinner with him, the entire time I spent in his company would have been of a different order.

What remained of his visit was a hurried afternoon goodbye to students and faculty gathered around the car that would take him back to the airport. I cannot explain it, but seeing him go I felt a deep sadness. I didn’t want him to leave. The man had touched me in ways I could not fathom, and still can’t. When I was alone afterward, I remember lying face down in thick, fragrant grass and letting the tears just come.

Ron Scheer reviews frontier fiction and westerns at his blog, Buddies in the Saddle. He’s gathered these reviews in a two-volume set titled How the West Was Written, the first of which was recently published by BEAT to a PULP. A retired teacher, he holds degrees from UCLA and has taught most recently in the Writing Program at the University of Southern California. He and his wife Lynda currently reside in the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs.

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The Tyger

by William Blake (1794)

Copy A of Blake's original printing of The Tyger, c. 1795. Copy A is currently held by the British Museum. [Wikipedia]

Copy A of Blake’s original printing of The Tyger, c. 1795. Copy A is currently held by the British Museum. [Wikipedia]

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Originally posted by Jake Hinkson at The Night Editor, June 20, 2013.



Henry Cavill in Man of Steel

I saw MAN OF STEEL the other day, and I liked it. I didn’t love it, as some people seem to. And I didn’t hate it, as an equal amount of people seem to. It hit me right down the middle–I liked it more than GREEN LANTERN or THOR but not as much as CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER or THE DARK KNIGHT.

It did put me in the mind to rewatch Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, a movie I loved as a child but haven’t watched in a while.


Christopher Reeve as Superman

Here are some observations from my viewing last night [Note, I’m assuming readers will have seen both films]:

1. SUPERMAN was probably the last charming superhero movie. Despite the grandeur of the opening Krypton scenes and the big action set pieces later on, the spirit of the thing is gentle and fun. It takes its source material seriously (at times, too seriously–Exhibit A: Marlon Brando’s plagiarism of John 3:16), but overall it’s got a light touch. It is, in a word, charming.

2. It owes a great deal of its charm to Christopher Reeve. He’s beautiful here–part sly comedian, part stalwart hero. What’s interesting, though, is the way Reeve occupies a delightful middle ground between those two poles most of the time. His Superman has a sense of humor, a wit that appreciates the absurdity of his situation–both in and out of his cape. Contrast this with, say, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and you’ll see the difference. Downey’s Stark has charisma–as an actor, Downey exudes charisma like a pheromone–which is what makes the Iron Man movies so much fun. But charisma is different than charm. Tony Stark is a playboy, a badass, a jester who stands aloof from the world and mocks its absurdities. Reeve’s Clark Kent is a gentle spirit–he winks rather than sneers. One approach is not innately better than the other, but it is evidence that we live in a harder climate superhero-wise. I can’t think of the last charming performance in a superhero role.

3. Henry Cavil is playing a different character than Reeve. His Clark Kent is more neurotic, harder around the edges, less of a boy scout. He’s closer to Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne than Reeve’s Clark Kent.

4. The Krypton in SUPERMAN is a really original idea for an alien planet. I don’t know enough to say whether or not it adheres to the Krypton of the comic books pre-John Byrne (Byrne’s 1980s run on Superman is really all I know of the books), but it doesn’t look like anything else in the movies. The block-ice surface of the planet, the giant dome, the weird crystal technology–it all stays fresh. The Krypton in MAN OF STEEL, in contrast, looks a lot like a planet that would have been in one of the STAR WARS prequels.

5. The first ten minutes or so of MAN OF STEEL are, all on their own, pretty bad. A lot of exposition, a lot of derivative sets, and a lot of action that’s standard action movie fisticuffs. And Michael Shannon screams a lot. In short, it’s a lot.

6. SUPERMAN has Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter as Superman’s adoptive parents. (Two film noir icons, btw.) Both are excellent and create, in just a couple of brief scenes, the sense of middle-American groundness that Clark takes with him the rest of the movie. Brando got paid a heap of cash to play Jor-El, but less of him is more. (The expanded director’s cut of the film has way too much Brando. It starts to feel like he’s popping up just to justify his huge payday rather than to serve any story purpose.) Glenn Ford, on the other hand, is in the movie for about five minutes and has more emotional impact.

7. In MAN OF STEEL, Kevin Costner pretty much does to Russell Crowe what Ford did to Brando. Then again, maybe I’m just more partial to Kansas farmers than Kryptonian scientists. That’s a distinct possibility.

8. Margot Kidder gets criticized by certain folks because she’s not hot enough to be Lois Lane. Which misses the point. She’s spunky and quirky–like a girl reporter in a 30s newspaper movie. Another actress might have disappeared in that role. Kidder gives it a nice screwball twist. [Amy Adams in MAN OF STEEL is good in a more conventionally written role. She plays the role straight, and the filmmakers make the brilliantly simple choice to have Lois discover Clark is Supes before he even attempts the whole Clark Kent charade. Doing this deftly sidesteps one of the biggest obstacles in accepting their romance.)

9. Gene Hackman pretty much invented the way you play a super villain. Part funny, part scary. Everyone from Jack Nicholson to Tom Hiddleston owes him a debt. [Michael Shannon’s Zod gets better as MAN OF STEEL goes on, mostly because he gets to stop and take the occasional breath. The opening scenes have him at full pitch–and Shannon hits a high pitch–but the actor is better when he ramps up to fury. He’s the master of the slow burn that explodes in rage. I love Michael Shannon. He’s one of my favorite actors and he does a good job with this role, but as a character Zod is pretty much a one dimensional would-be dictator. I hope that in the sequel we get a character with a little more nuance.]

10. The debate over MAN OF STEEL’s ending is overblown. Yes, Superman isn’t a killer, but he’s a warrior and sometimes people die. Remember that Zod dies in SUPERMAN II as well. Though, just to be clear, in MAN OF STEEL I don’t know why Superman didn’t either sweep Zod’s legs or throw up his hand to block Zod’s heat vision. [Wow. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.] For that matter, here’s one last word on SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE: when Lois dies at the end and Superman turns back time to save her (never been sure exactly how he did that, by the way) wouldn’t he also have turned back everything else? Wouldn’t some of the people he saved in the previous scenes now perish? That ending never made any damn sense.

Jake Hinkson is the author of the novel HELL ON CHURCH STREET and the novellas THE POSTHUMOUS MAN and SAINT HOMICIDE. He’s also a regular contributor to Macmillan’s websites CRIMINAL ELEMENT and TOR, as well as the film journal NOIR CITY (the flagship publication of the Film Noir Foundation).

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the nurse
drawing my plasma
is having
trouble finding
a vein

she asks again
about drug use

about why I’m choosing
to donate

her fingers shake,
her skin is blotchy

with white heads,
her voice is a cat’s tail

in a rusty screen door.

I tell her,

I’m too lazy to work
for $7.50 an hour
and rent is
due in

two weeks

And I can’t afford a

(originally appeared at The 5-2 Crime Poetry Weekly)

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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Netting a Knight: Nabokov’s First English Novel

Ron Scheer reviews The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) by Vladimir Nabokov.

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir NabokovThe risk of talking about anything by Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1977) is the opportunity it offers to reveal one’s ignorance. Nabokov was born into a wealthy St. Petersburg family that was later driven from Russia by the Bolshevik Revolution. I’m willing to bet he knew more languages than everybody reading this and English better than anyone.

A man of cosmopolitan sensibilities and some learning, at home among the boulevards and cafés of Paris, he had maybe only one interest that may be said to be even remotely related to my own as a writer about western and frontier fiction. The year 1956 found him in Utah, Wyoming, and Montana, hunting butterflies.

Nabokov is one of those few writers (like Dickens, Hemingway, and Shakespeare) who have a style of storytelling named after them. Look up “Nabokovian,” and you find frequent use of the word “playful,” not just in the use of language and literary forms, but in the way he has fun with your expectations.

His first novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, is (or pretends to be) a literary detective story. Its narrator tells of his attempt to uncover the final years of Sebastian Knight, a respected novelist who is by chance his half-brother. I say “pretends to be,” because the narrative is knee-deep in ironies. There is much for a serious reader to take seriously, but with Nabokov, you never can be sure when he is pulling your leg.

Let’s say we give it a serious reading. The novel concerns itself with the phenomenon of celebrity and authors whose loyal readers want to know the intimate details of their lives. In the absence of that intimacy, they presume to find autobiographical self-disclosure in the pages of the author’s fiction. Think of the fuss over the reclusive J. D. Salinger, the fans who stalked him, and the recent documentary project digging up reminiscences from former friends and lovers, all of it an effort to find the “real” person behind the man’s published work.

Such is the case in Nabokov’s novel as his narrator, like a private detective, attempts to piece together the scattered clues he finds of his now-dead half-brother’s private life. The mystery grows as he becomes more obsessed with it, even while what he uncovers turns out to be of little more value than cheap gossip.

Like the mystery surrounding Salinger, there seems to be a lover at the heart of it. And the narrator’s story becomes one of his tireless efforts to determine the elusive identity of a married woman who may or may not have had an affair with Knight in his last years. The irony is that when we finally meet the woman, she illuminates nothing about the author or his fiction.

Nabokov is saying (to me at least) that the search for an author’s “real life” outside of their work is not just a hopeless task. It is meaningless. In the case of Sebastian Knight, we learn that the life of a brilliant writer can be as shabbily ordinary as anyone else’s. What an author writes has a life of its own and is arguably more real than the personality, character, or life experience of the person who created it.

The real life to be found in Nabokov’s novel is in fact that of its narrator, a nameless man, with writerly aspirations of his own. We learn that he once held an unspecified job for a company in Marseille, where he disliked his work and was disliked in turn by his boss. He is an earnest fan worshipping at a shrine of his own making, whose biographical tribute to his half-brother seems little more at times than a sad hope to illuminate himself with reflected glory.

He elevates Sebastian Knight to a level far above others, claiming for him powers of perception so highly developed that no one can hope to meet him on any common ground. No one, that is, but the narrator. Viewing an artist’s portrait of Sebastian, he notes that it’s a picture of a reflection in a pool. It is Sebastian as Narcissus gazing upon himself with the adoration no one else deserves because there is no one with sensibilities sufficiently refined to fully appreciate him.

From the start, you are free to suspect you are in the hands of an unreliable narrator, and to the end, it’s hard to know what’s playfully ironic and what’s not, which I’d argue is Nabokov’s intention. Sebastian Knight remains an elusive figure. The more the narrator discovers about him, the more urgent becomes his need for a final revelation, which he hopes in the last pages to get from the lips of the dying man himself, who lies in a hospital bed somewhere outside Paris. Here Nabokov ramps up the suspense by sending the narrator by slow-moving train and cab to his half-brother’s bedside, encountering all manner of obstacles along the way.

This final sequence is inspired by cinematic melodrama, chase scenes, and races against the clock. It sets up both the narrator and the reader for a blissfully recounted epiphany that is cathartic and soul satisfying for the narrator, while—to me at least—illusory and deeply ironic for the reader. Like I said, with Nabokov, you can’t be sure when he’s pulling your leg. For anyone who knows Lolita and Nabokov’s other fiction, this first novel is full of entertaining surprises and conundrums, worthy of an enormously gifted writer who, among other things in his “real life,” collected butterflies in Utah, Wyoming, and Montana.

Nabokov’s work has been collected in an excellent multi-volume annotated edition by Viking.

Ron Scheer reviews frontier fiction and westerns at his blog, Buddies in the Saddle. He’s gathered these reviews in a two-volume set titled How the West Was Written, the first of which was recently published by BEAT to a PULP. A retired teacher, he holds degrees from UCLA and has taught most recently in the Writing Program at the University of Southern California. He and his wife Lynda currently reside in the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs.

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