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A Clod of Wayward Marl

Rick DeMarinis

Dennis McMillan Publications

US Hardcover first

ISBN: 0-939767-37-6

Publication Date: February, 2001

333 Pages; $30.00

Reviewed: June 15, 2003

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003



Mystery, Science Fiction, Horror

When you pick up a book with a title like 'A Clod of Wayward Marl', you've got to expect that you're in for something bizarre and unusual. And when the book is printed by Dennis McMillan, you can be certain of it. McMillan has a way of finding and publishing off beat or neglected authors that major publishing houses wouldn't touch, although he also produces exquisite limited edition books by some heavy hitters like Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos.

An acclaimed but apparently under-noticed author in the science fiction/fantasy genre, Rich DeMarinis is an inventive and darkly humorous writer. In his first cross-over to mystery fiction, he tells the story of Guido Tarkenen, half Italian, half Finn, a writer of "slasher trash" novels who's taken an author-in-residence teaching position in the English Department at La Siberia Tech, a school in Texas just across the border from Mexico. Guido makes a memorable entrance when, in a fit of ire, he knocks a Clark Gable look-alike off his barstool, kicks him in the ribs, and then notices the man's twin aluminum canes. "I will do better, he told himself". Shortly thereafter, in yet another bar, he insults Carma, a bruiser broad who proceeds to do painful things to intimate parts of Guido's anatomy, follows him as he leaves the bar, shoots him in the shoulder and then administers first aid while he's passed out in pain. La Siberia Tech? Carma? Looks like we're in for a romp.

The story, such as it is, involves the purchase of La Siberia Tech by Global Visions, a technocratic nightmare company based in Singapore, for its valuable patents and a cybertopia machine. I'm not at all clear about whether the cybertopia machine comes with the school or not, but it's perfectly clear that this machine is a big deal - the electronic heroin, virtual reality, entertainment uber-gadget that will make all other forms of amusement obsolete, including slasher novels and university English departments. Guido, often unwittingly or unwillingly, finds himself helping eccentric, mostly drunken, professors and other odd hangers-on, thwart the sale and save the school. This is not a great story to be sure, and here it's frequently abandoned in pursuit of a motley mishmash of other things -- wayward dreams, stories within stories, and cybertopic fantasies. Characters from Guido's yet-to-be-written slasher novel come alive and briefly take over the action, extended dream-like (cybertopic, I guess) sequences of sexual conquest and subconscious demonic doings veer the story into fantasy, and an intrusive neighbor and her Italian daughter veer the story toward romance. There's a little of this and a little of that, and, while often funny, little of it makes much sense.

'A Clod of Wayward Marl' is a mystery edging into science fiction/fantasy, and it's most appealing when read as an "innerscape" of Guido's inventive mind. It's an upside down, inside out, backwards, forwards, topsy-turvy wild thing. DeMarinis' writes inventive, witty and often hilarious zinger-sentences - sometimes silly, sometimes scathing, all cynically in-tune with the liberal agenda. (As an example, try "Hate was nature's own angioplasty"). Guido's less a character and more a mouthpiece for these musings, as are the other characters and story threads in the book. At the end of the day, however, what started out as a romp grew tiresome and what seemed original and offbeat grew thin. The wit and dark humor are terrific, but I could really have used a story. "Marl" by the way, means a crumbly mixture of clays. A wayward clod of crumbly clay about sums it up.

A note about the book itself. McMillan makes beauteous books - heavy cloth front and back cover boards, embossed end papers front and back, pages bound not glued. The dust jacket of 'A Clod of Wayward Marl' is unique. Designed by Michael Kellner, the front of the jacket features a, dare I say tasteful, clod of marl on a couple of antique books. The back cover, upside down to the front, features a different photo of a barglass containing a skeleton sitting atop some paperback slasher trash novels, all on top of more marl. Pretty cool.