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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