email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""Who Could That Be at This Hour?"3 Willows4th of July99 DaysA Beautiful MindA Change in AltitudeA Corner Of The UniverseA Frog ThingA Great and Terrible BeautyA People's History of ChristianityA Question of BloodA Slight Trick of the MindA Step Toward FallingA Thousand Miles from NowhereA Voyage Long and StrangeA Wedding in December Abraham LincolnAcross the River and Into the TreesAfter DarkAgainst EmpathyAgainst Medical AdviceAll the Bright PlacesAll the Way HomeAll Unquiet ThingsAlphavilleAmerica AmericaAmong the DepartedAn EducationAn Object of BeautyAnatomy of a MisfitAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaBad BoyBad RatsBarbara the Slut and Other PeopleBeach RoadBeat the ReaperBeauty QueensBed of RosesBefore I DieBefore I FallBefore the FrostBig BrotherBiteBlack Elk SpeaksBlameBleed for MeBlonde FaithBlood, Salt, WaterBody SurfingBog ChildBoneMan's DaughtersBoomsdayBorder CrossingBorn Standing UpBoys Are DogsBoys Will Put You on a Pedestal (So They Can Look Up Your Skirt)Brava, ValentineBreak Through PainBreathingBridge of SighsBrief Interviews with Hideous MenBrutalBy BloodC StreetCalm Beneath the WavesCanadaCellCemetery DanceChange Your Brain, Change Your LifeCheeverCinnamon KissCleopatraClose Your EyesCompulsionCross CountryCyborgasmDakotaDancing at the Shame PromDarkest FearDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDead EvenDear Zoe,Death Without TenureDeceptionDefending JacobDefine NormalDeliriumDevil in the DetailsDiscovering Pig MagicDisturbing GroundDivergentDivine JusticeDivisaderoDoing ItDown the Rabbit HoleDr. Andrew Weil's Mindbody ToolkitDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDriftlessEven Dogs in the WildEvery Exquisite ThingEvery Little Thing in the WorldEye ContactFaith, Hope, and Ivy JuneFaking NormalFalling ManFamily FirstFans of the Impossible LifeFear of the DarkFellsideField of BloodFile Under: 13 Suspicious IncidentsFiregirlForest of the PygmiesFortunate SonFraudFreak the MightyFree RefillsFull Steam Ahead!Furiously HappyGenerosityGenomeGetting a Good Night's SleepGetting the Love You Want Audio CompanionGiftedGirl in TranslationGod Is DeadGod Is Not OneGods and BeastsGoing BovineGranny Torrelli Makes SoupGraysonHappy FamilyHappy Mutant Baby PillsHarmlessHe's Just Not That Into YouHealthy AgingHeartbeatHeftHigh HeatHolidays on IceHot MilkHotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel WorldHotels of North AmericaHow a Gunman Says GoodbyeHow Full Is Your Bucket?How Successful People ThinkHow to Build a HouseHow to See Yourself As You Really AreHow to Set a Fire and WhyHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurt Go HappyHypnography for MenHypnography for WomenI Am Not Joey PigzaI Can See YouI Drink for a ReasonI Feel Bad About My NeckI'd Know You AnywhereIdiot AmericaIf a Tree Falls at Lunch PeriodIf I StayIf You StayImagine Me GoneIn ZanesvilleInfinite JestInheritanceInnocentInside the O'BriensInvincibleInvisibleIt Takes OneJennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, ElizabethJust LifeKiss of Broken GlassKissing Ted Callahan (And Other Guys)Leaping BeautyLies My Girlfriend Told MeLife After LifeLife InterruptedLife of PiLife StrategiesLisey's StoryLitLittle Black LiesLittle ScarletLive For Your Listening PleasureLiving Your DreamLong Shadow of Small GhostsLooking for BobowiczLost in the ForestLove Is a Mix TapeLove Times ThreeLove, AubreyLowboyMadappleMade For YouMagical ThinkingMagnificenceMaliceMan in the WoodsMeditation in a New York MinuteMeetings with a Remarkable ManMiddlesexMind MappingMindfulness for BeginnersMirrorMaskMischlingMissing PresumedMolly Moon's Incredible Book of HypnotismMommies Who DrinkMunich AirportMy AbandonmentMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Name Is RedMy One Hundred AdventuresMy Sister's KeeperName All the AnimalsNelson Mandela's Favorite African FolktalesNemesisNever Let Me GoNight FilmNina: AdolescenceNinety DaysNone of the AboveNurtureShockObjects of My AffectionOlive's OceanOn Chesil BeachOne Flew Over The Cuckoo's NestOutliersPaint It BlackPanicParadise LodgeParanoiaPeace Is Every BreathPeople Who Eat DarknessPharmakonPictures of Hollis WoodsPictures of YouPilgrim at Tinker CreekPlaying with FirePlease Stop Laughing at UsPositivityPresumed InnocentPretty Girl-13Prisoner of Night and FogPuddlejumpersPunkzillaRacing the DevilReady for AnythingRebuttalRequiemRescueRevolutionary RoadRoomRun for Your LifeSay You're SorryScatSchool of FearSeason to TasteSecrets of a Passionate MarriageSee How SmallSeeds of HopeSex and SpiritSide Effects May VarySilencedSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens AgendaSix Impossible ThingsSkelligSleeping BeautySnowSo Brave, Young and HandsomeSolitaireSomeday This Pain Will Be Useful to YouSourlandSquirrel Seeks ChipmunkStill MissingStory of a GirlStress ReliefSupreme CourtshipSurviving OpheliaSwimming to ElbaSworn to SilenceSymptoms of Being HumanTeaseTeaseTell the Truth, Shame the DevilTen Minutes to RelaxTestimonyThat Old Cape MagicThe Abortionist's DaughterThe AccidentalThe Accidental BillionairesThe AdultsThe Almost MoonThe Anatomy of HopeThe Art of ChoosingThe Art of Exceptional LivingThe Artist of DisappearanceThe Average American MarriageThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe Beat Goes OnThe Best AwfulThe Big LoveThe Boat RockerThe Book of JoeThe Book of LiesThe Book of the DeadThe Boy Who DaredThe Boyfriend ListThe Brass VerdictThe Breakout PrincipleThe Burden of ProofThe Case for GodThe Case of the Case of Mistaken IdentityThe Cemetery BoysThe Chosen OneThe ClosersThe Consciousness PlagueThe Conspiracy ClubThe Cuckoo's CallingThe Day I Ate Whatever I WantedThe Dead Fathers ClubThe Death of Bunny MunroThe Devotion of Suspect XThe Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-BanksThe Diviner's TaleThe Dressmaker of Khair KhanaThe Dynamite RoomThe Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round ThingsThe EndThe Erotic EdgeThe Essential KamasutraThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe Forgotten GirlsThe Geography of You and MeThe Gift of an Ordinary DayThe Gingerbread GirlThe Girl in 6EThe Girl in the GardenThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's NestThe Girl Who Played with FireThe Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Grief of OthersThe Grim GrottoThe Guise of AnotherThe Guy Not TakenThe Heart of YogaThe Heretic's DaughterThe Ice QueenThe Ice TwinsThe Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe InseparablesThe InterestingsThe Keeper of Lost CausesThe Kings of LondonThe Language God TalksThe Language of SecretsThe Language Of YogaThe Last ChildThe Last MileThe Last Time We Say GoodbyeThe Male BrainThe Man from BeijingThe Man in My BasementThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Map of True PlacesThe Marriage PlotThe Memory Book The Mermaids SingingThe Ministry of Special CasesThe MuralistThe Museum of InnocenceThe Mystery of the Third LucretiaThe Myth of LazinessThe NarrowsThe Necessary Death of Lewis WinterThe New YorkersThe NewleywedsThe NixThe NursesThe Opposite of InvisibleThe Other Side of the StoryThe Outcasts of 19 Schuyler PlaceThe Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeThe PastThe Penultimate PerilThe PostcardThe Pregnant WidowThe Promise of a LieThe PyramidThe Qi Healing KitThe ReaderThe Republican BrainThe Rule of FourThe Rules of SurvivalThe Savage CityThe ScarecrowThe Second GirlThe Secret Life of BeesThe Secret of Lost ThingsThe Secret ScriptureThe Secret SpeechThe Secret Wisdom of the EarthThe ShallowsThe Shock of the FallThe Silent BoyThe SisterThe Sound of Broken GlassThe SpindlersThe Story HourThe Story of Beautiful GirlThe Sudden Arrival of ViolenceThe Survivors ClubThe Sweet Relief of Missing ChildrenThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the PieThe Tail of Emily WindsnapThe Tenth JusticeThe Thing About JellyfishThe Third AngelThe TouristThe Treasure Map of BoysThe Trouble with Goats and SheepThe Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraThe Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia MossThe UnquietThe Unseen WorldThe View from SaturdayThe WaveThe Weed That Strings the Hangman's BagThe Weight of the NationThe Whole TruthThe WilloughbysThe Witch's BoyThe Wolves of AndoverThe Words We Live ByThe Wrong Side of GoodbyeThe Year of the FloodThe Year That FollowsThe Yin Yoga KitThirteen Reasons WhyThis Beautiful LifeThis Body of DeathThis Book Is Not Good For YouThis Full HouseThis Is HowThose GirlsThose Who Wish Me DeadTony & SusanToo Much HappinessTooth and NailTouchTransformation TriburbiaTrue BelieverTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTwinmakerTwistedTwo Can PlayTwo Little Girls in BlueUnaccustomed EarthUnder the HarrowUnder the InfluenceUnder WildwoodUnlessUnthinkingUp in the AirVery ValentineVisits from The Drowned GirlVoid MoonWaiting for SunriseWalkingWarWatching the DarkWhat the Dog SawWhen We Were AnimalsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhen You Reach MeWhere She WentWherever You Go, There You AreWhite HotWild AwakeWild ChildWildwoodWill They Ever Trust Us Again?Wolf in White VanWomen's Murder Club Box SetYoga SanctuaryYou Look Different in Real LifeYou Should Have KnownYou Will Know Me
For most books, the fact that the reviewer listened to the
unabridged audiobook version rather than read the paper version should make
little difference to the assessment of the book. However, Holter Graham's performance of Stephen Sherrill's Visits
from the Drowned Girl transforms the experience of the book. Graham, a film and TV actor, speaks with a
strong southern accent, in a slow, relatively monotonous manner. The book is spread over 8 compact disks and
I think I fell asleep to every single one of them. This is surprising for a book full of sex, violence and perversity. The book have could have been performed in a
very different way, with a voice full of surprise and questioning, and even
outrage, but Graham's interpretation of the narrator is a subdued, resigned and
morally nihilistic man. It would be
very interesting to know whether the author had any role in selecting the
reader for the audiobook.
The book's main protagonist is Benny Poteat, a southern man
who lives alone with his old lumbering dachshund Squat. He works as a painter of high towers, and he
spends much of his time looking down on the rest of the town of Buffalo
Shoals. He spends much of the rest of
his time drinking with his best friend Jeeter and some other memorable
characters. He is not a particularly
good man, but he does not seem to be bad either. So it seems that he must have been changed by his watching a girl
from a distance from a tower as she walks to the beach shore, sets up a video
camera, undresses, and walks into the water, drowning herself. It is not just the initial experience that
affects Benny, but his watching of the videos the girl left next to her video
camera over a period of several weeks.
As readers, we expect the book to unfold as an
unconventional mystery novel, as Benny investigates to find out who the girl
was and why she killed herself, videotaping her final moments, and indeed, it
mostly fulfills this promise. However,
it is more than that, since it also follows Benny's descent into moral
degradation and the complete breakdown of his life as he has known it. The story has many elements of a modern
tragedy, setting out the downfall of an ordinary man. One might describe it as a novel of existential crisis in which
the main character becomes totally alienated from his world. Yet running through the book is a deep current
of dark humor, which makes it much more palatable and makes it harder to
interpret the story as a work of moral seriousness. Just after seeing the drowning, Benny goes to a local store to
tell the clerk about what he has just seen, but the man is deaf and has a
silver quarter in his ear. He buys some
turkey-jerky and a "penis-shaped chocolate lollipop, balls and
all." Walking out of the shop, he
trips and hurts his toe, making him do a dance of pain in the street when a cop
comes up and asks what he is doing.
Although he had planned to go to the police to report the girl's death,
he suffers too much pain and embarrassment to tell the cop what he has just
seen. Throughout the book, Benny has
many opportunities to come clean to people about his secret, but each time he
fails to rise to the occasion.
Sherrill puts his readers in a difficult position, however,
by refusing to allow them to just enjoy the humor and bawdiness that fills the
story. Instead he places them in an
uncomfortable position, as Benny finds Rebecca, the sister of the drowned
girl. Rebecca is a very short person
with a growth disorder who works in a realty office. Without ever telling her of his motive, Benny befriends her and
they start a sexual relationship. Benny
is very friendly to her at first, but as he comes to be closer to her and her
family, and as he watches the videotapes made by her dead sister, he becomes
manipulative and cruel. His cruelty is
sharpened by the fact that Rebecca is short, and yet many of the scenes between
them have comic charge because of her physical difference. One might guess that Sherrill is daring his
readers to laugh and hence reveal their own cruelty.
What kind of moral work is being done by the work
here? It is worth comparing this novel
with something far cruder, such as the TV animation show Beavis and Butthead. In that show, two inane and even moronic
young men sit on the couch watching music videos and make fun of the
performers. They are offensive and
nasty, but as viewers we can laugh at their jokes because we can tell ourselves
that we are laughing at Beavis and Butthead's stupidity. We do not have to feel we are endorsing
their cruelty, but instead we are seeing how idiotic they are. What's more, the two of them make fun of each
other, and the most of the rock stars they make fun of are setting themselves
up for derision, so they don't really seem like bad people, and it is possible
to like having them around. Of course,
they are sexist and morally unenlightened, but if we experience some
identification with them, we do not have to feel guilty, because our enjoyment
can mean that we are laughing at ourselves.
At times, Benny and his friend Jeeter are reminiscent of
Beavis and Butthead: the two of them get into trouble and do stupid things
together, daring each other to excess.
But although when the two of them get together, they are funny, they
don't laugh at each other. This is a
much darker vision, as might be expected.
If we share their humor and identify with their readiness to hurt
others, we implicate ourselves, and Sherrill does not offer us a way to relieve
ourselves of the accompanying guilt. We
may simply want to separate ourselves from Benny and condemn him for his evil
behavior. (Certainly, a good number of
the reader reviews at Amazon.com express disgust at the book, and give it a low
rating as a result.) Yet the book works
hard to make Benny a sympathetic character, and obviously if it is to succeed
at being more than just a story about an unfortunate and unpleasant man, it has
to do so. If Visits from the Drowned
Girl is to be successful, and in my opinion it does work, then it has to
enable the reader to identify with Benny in a fairly straightforward way. It does not invite us to laugh at ourselves,
but rather to see how far removed we are from our ideals.
One of the most questionable themes of the book is the
content of the videos made by the drowned girl, Jenna. Her motivation for making them is far from
clear, but she seems to regard them as a kind of artistic creation in her
efforts to record her life and death, which she sees as a performance. Yet her life does not turn out well, which
is of course why she kills herself.
People take advantage of her and she suffers awful misfortunes. They have a profound effect on Benny, who
watches them secretively in his duplex home, and often masturbates as he
watches them. He orders them
chronologically and watches each in turn, taking weeks until he gets to the
final one. It is hard to work out why
they carry such emotional significance for Benny. They seem to serve more of a symbolic plot device in the novel,
and are not fully integrated into the story.
Jenna's life remains in shadow, and what is important for the story is
Benny's fetishistic voyeurism about her life, as well as all the other lives he
looks onto from his towers. The whole
book rests on this part of the plot (even the book cover shows a video tape)
but it seems an insufficiently worked out idea. When at one point fairly late in the novel, Benny loses one of
the tapes, it feels like a relief that we do not have to endure him watching
The pleasure of the novel comes largely from Sherrill's
mastery of language and the humor of group situations. He excels at the awkwardness of Benny's
meetings with Rebecca and her religious parents. His weaving of tall tales as episodes from the pasts of several
of his characters, full of fantastic events, are the most pleasurable moments
of the story. His talent at word choice
and sensitivity to phrasing are outstanding, so it is not surprising that he
has an MFA in poetry.
Visits from the Drowned Girl is a remarkable and memorable
novel, and after repeated listening, it turns out that the performance in the
audiobook by Holter Graham is excellent.
Graham's self-contained reading, which only occasionally erupts with big
emotions, helps to keep the tone consistent even when the events are utterly
bizarre. He becomes more alive when
doing the voices of other characters, especially the women, and his wry tone
helps to bring out the humor of the situations without forcing the issue. Highly recommended.
© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts
& Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling
College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and