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Visits from The Drowned GirlReview - Visits from The Drowned Girl
A Novel
by Steven Sherrill
Highbridge Audio, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Apr 14th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 15)

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 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 it.

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.




Link: Highbridge Audio




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 psychology.


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