Joseph Harms’s debut novel of high school depravity Baal is trying too hard in all the right ways.
The debut novel is like the first day of school: First impressions are important. How do you compose a story that demands attention, that asserts your unique style and voice, a general mastery of the craft and an inventive plot—all without feeling showy or forced? It’s a tough needle to thread, and the consequences last.
In Joseph Harms’s debut novel, Baal, a 13-year-old boy named Cassius growing up in a working-class Michigan town in the early 1990s, decides he’d like to start wearing a suit. If the goal of adolescent fashion is to stake out your individuality without being ostracized by your peers, a suit pushes the envelope. It breaks the first rule of rebellious conformity, which is never let them see you try. Anything else is social suicide.
Like Cassius’s suit, Harms’s writing is suicidal. The first few pages are filled with neologisms and baroque, maximalist prose that at first glance appears overwritten and clunky. The novel begins:
The windbent corn’s brittle stalkleaves whipped their upturned flannel collars. Lowslung clouds tracked a shaletiered sky cordoned by earthend cumulonimbi, cordilleras that tansmuted into semblances of their previous form in such a way as to seem permanent. The clockdrip of leaves coded an obbligato noticed when ululation and treemoan would a moment surcease.
The chapter continues with the two boys walking into the woods in search of Cassius’s lost dog. When they find it, alive but wounded, presumably the victim of a vicious pack of pit bulls owned by a man they call Old Man Crazy, they’re startled by a hairless, half-naked and tattooed hermaphrodite with Down syndrome. The injured dog attacks, and Cassius swings his machete, taking away a chunk of their thumb. This first chapter reads like a kid in a suit walking down the hallway before homeroom, hunched over and scowling as the crowds part to gawk at him. Is this guy serious?
Yes, delightfully, the answer is yes. Joseph Harms is very serious.
While the first chapter sounds like some Palahniuk meets Tarantino teenage-boy fantasy, the novel bears more resemblance to Cormac McCarthy, particularly Blood Meridian. As the story progresses, propelled by an onslaught of unthinkable violence and sexual deviance, Harms’s rich, elaborate prose is not only a stylistic choice but a necessity. In a lesser writer’s hands, rendered in lay prose, the brutality would come off gratuitous, but through Harms we view the atrocities with philosophical distance—like the difference between a snuff photo and a Bruegel painting. After a few pages his extensive lexicon and frequent use of neologisms begin to sound natural and add a freshness and precision to each image. Descriptions such as “the leafserried horizon, a cigend sun, stertorous coughmelled laughter,” and “blue eyes fulgent with capillarybrambles,” left me wishing English were a fusional language.
Cassius is the 13-year-old son of an emotionless, violent father whom he refers to as “biodad.” His stepfather, with whom he lives along with his mother and two sisters, is an equally predatory man who, when drunk, often torments his son with deranged baby talk. “I want to know if you’d like me to raise my widdle feetsies up for you so you can do what should have been done two hours ago. Would you like that?” he taunts Cassius when his stepson asks if he can vacuum underneath him. “Want me to raise my widdle feetsies wike dis?”
While his mother loves and attempts to care for Cassius, she is too broken by her marriages to these men to offer him anything more than the false strength she finds at church. His only true ally is his best friend, Max. Though Max’s home life is less abusive than Cassius’s, his sensitivity and his race (he is black in a mostly white town) leaves him in a precarious and alienated position.
The Michigan landscape is recognizable—an anywhere American town where men laid off from auto plants spend their days drinking and picking on their families, where people find last-ditch solace and pride in evangelical Christianity, and where substance abuse is a panacea for boredom. While Baal, self-described as a “novel of gothic horror,” does contain fantastic elements like Lovecraft, Poe, and Stephen King, it, like the writing of Donald Ray Pollock, finds its true horror in the quotidian violence of poor, white mid-America. Incest, filicide, and wanton cruelty are more frightening than any ghost.
The novel’s emotional heaviness is periodically relieved by a streak of black, grotesque humor. At a religious jamboree, a teenage cancer survivor is mocked by a peer in the most preposterous way. A man named Lonely Tony goes on an epic ramble about all the things his ever growing penis has caught as he walks through life: ”brambles and beartraps, a wheelbarrel of frozen dogturds and gnawedup rabbitfeet, chickenwire and eggs rattling with bones, kyotes gnawing off they own legs and the pisspots hitched by barbwire to all those weddingmobiles…” Cassius loses his virginity to a girl who narrates the entire episode, in all its hardcore-porn-inspired glory and revulsion, by shouting upstairs to her obese bedridden mother: “MOM! CASSIUS IS GOING TO SHOOT HIS SEMEN INTO MY ANUS! I WONT BE ABLE TO GO TO SCHOOL TOMORROW!”
Cassius begins adolescence with an intimate understanding of evil. Everything he’s taught to fear by the church is plentiful at home. While he knows evil, he believes only in good; its manifestations are harder to recognize in the outside world, but he feels its presence inside himself. Affirmed by Max’s loyal friendship, Cassius devotes his life, with a zealotry on par with the Jesus freaks he despises, to combating evil. “Innocence is laziness, blatant laziness. It is evil if it prevents action,” Cassius tells himself. With his precocious intelligence and preternatural strength of will, Cassius is his own Nietzschean Übermensch.
His Zarathustra—albeit a defeated, world-weary one—is Lonely Tony, who runs a “Party Store” in a trailer next to a swamp. The store stays open late offering “gasstation commodities sans gas” along with beer and spiked coffee. The boys are frequent visitors to the store where Lonely Toney gives them discounts on his special coffee and dishes up nihilist philosophy for free. When the boys ask Tony what to do about a man who’s been sexually assaulting his daughter and the police chief who’s been protecting him, he counsels the kids to “mash their junk up.”
Their plan to drug and trap the men goes awry when the diversionary fire they start engulfs the police chief’s house. Armed with monkey wrenches the boys attack; an action which also proves to be a point of no return. The rapist father survives only to commit more crime, and Cassius’s ensuing terror and guilt envelop him in a philosophical quandary, where again he channels Nietzsche:
Cassius wondered about the eternal return of horrible things. If they always must escalate. If once a horror is learned it can never again be called horror then the next thing to be called horror must be far worse, Cassius thought. Until the only thing that makes us flinch is being burned alive.
The market for YA horror, fueled by the success of Twilight and The Hunger Games, has never been stronger. It’s a trend that will eventually dissipate, but there is a fundamental connection between adolescence and horror. In those years of low self-esteem and bullying, the dread we experience is less rational than the adult variety, and most in-line with exaggerated threats of fictional horror. Much of the power in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle comes from his ability to recount the minutia of that forgotten angst. Baal treads too close to life to offer the escapism of Twilight, while the injuries it relates are too traumatic for Knausgaardian nostalgia. When Cassius and Max gear up for one last stand against evil and Old Man Crazy, it is neither teenage nor adult horror the reader feels, but the stark perversity of humanity stripped bare.
Baal, in both its prose style and plot is a high-stakes novel. On each page, the reader feels that a tremendous amount of effort, insight, and pain went into its creation. The fact that a press still hasn’t picked up this self-published book is a considerable failure of the American literary world. Baal is a fiercely ambitious novel, imperfect though tinged with frequent moments of genius that demand an audience. The kid in the suit is trying hard, and with good reason.