James Blaylock is a talented California fantasist (my own designation) along with the also powerfully talented Tim Powers (the two of whom are friends).
Blaylock’s stories are set in odd corners and places in California, and with this novel; it is no different.
But this time it is on unincorporated land where the states of California, Nevada and Arizona meet at the Colorado River.
New Cypress is a little town. It has a trailer park and old houses along the river, a ferry that goes back and forth to the Arizona side and lots of boaters up and down the water. You can go up to Bullhead City or down to Needlesthese are the big towns in the area.
Into this little backwater comes Calvin Bryson a cartoonist from Eagle Rock, a bedroom community in the huge sprawl of Los Angeles. He is bringing a light-as- thistle-down sealed cardboard box holding an old veil supposedly worn by a spiritualist Aunt Iris to give to his Uncle Al Lymon because the friend in the Midwest who sent itdoesn’t trust it getting to New Cypress by regular delivery. His Aunt Nettie, Al’s wife, has been struggling with cancer and is not doing so well which also convinces Calvin he needs to make this unexpected journey to New Cypress.
Calvin comes into town, not having visited in quite a long time and steps into the middle of a power struggle by folks who have descended from the Knights Templarsand a man who wants to be the Grand Master on his own terms and oust the current Knights. He wants to get his hands on what the Knights guard out at their Temple Bar, a bit of rocky island in the Colorado not too far from shore. (There is also an actual bar there as well. The real heart is below ground and river level.)
I loved the landscape: the Dead Mountains (called that because tombstones were quarried there), the slow green expanse of the Colorado River, willow trees on the edges, dry desert landscape hemming in the green. There’s a cast of eccentrics of course: Shirley Fowler who runs the Gas’n’Go on the highway and is nobody’s fool, Uncle Al and his buddies, Lamar Morris who has a tiny bookstore with some very odd books in it. Calvin collects New Age pamphlets---not the hippie version, but the Fifties version involving aliens, archaic symbols and ancient mysteries and printed up in now fading bits of off-colored cheap newsprint some illustrated with handmade block print images.
Calvin gets up close and personal with Bob Postum (the challenger) who wants the relic that Calvin has brought to his uncle. His Aunt Iris’ veil is actually the real veil of Veronica, the woman who wiped Jesus’ face to give Him comfort as He carried the cross on His way to Golgotha.
This is the real deal…not some medieval copy.
There are skirmishes and standoffs, but how does the main confrontation take place? Well, you don’t want the denizens of New Cypress or anywhere else to get suspicious by your explosions, rag tag army and gunshots so you set up a fake movie crew filming---of coursea Crusades- flavored film filled with Saracens on camel back and knights with a big red cross on their white tabards---and trebuchets! Flinging rocks. Not to fight off the Saracens, but to do real damage to the Knights of the Cornerstone (which is the actual cornerstone of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and somehow made its way to the Colorado).
Bob Postum and his henchmen want the Veil of Veronicaand any Templar treasure they can find. And of course they’ll do anything to get them.
Calvin for about half the novel is not sure what is going on, if anyone around him is sane and more important, whether he should get involved. Templars in the desert? Really? And it seems as if almost all the adults in New Cypress are Knights (women included). He is a bit adrift, spiritually and actually.
But here in New Cypress he finally meets his purpose and a strong-willed young woman named Donna who is Shirley Fowler’s granddaughter whom Calvin actually met once when he was five. And now she is all grown up, intelligent, talented and a Knight like her grandmother.
The two of them, with the help of the other Knights confront Bob Postum’s assault which ends terrifically and rather poetically, as it should.
Blaylock’s characters are all characters in the best sense; they are all well-flavored and interesting. And the environment as I said is a delight. It really makes me want to go the Colorado River and find a shore side town and watch the river flow from a chair sunk into the edge of the river, the water flowing over my bare feet with a grape Nehi soda half buried in the silt.
If you have not read Blaylock: try this. It’s delightful and satisfying; inventive and eccentric. As is anything else he’s written. ~~ Sue Martin