Nebraska-based author Poe Ballantine has given his new novel the subtitle The Great American Loony Bin, Horseplaying, & Record-Collecting Novel, but despite the book’s relative slimness, that doesn’t cover nearly all of it. Whirlaway, published by Portland’s Hawthorne Books, also manages to pack in multiple ghosts, a few serial killers, a smuggler’s tunnel, a glorious all-day fiesta at a migrant camp, and a telepathic dog named Carlito who prefers to be called “Sweets.” Despite its kaleidoscopic reach, it becomes a simple story about careful friendships and damaged families, tinctured with truth and Ballantine’s enthrallingly virtuosic prose.
The book’s ever-increasing clarity—like a sauce whose disparate ingredients are cooked down into an inseparable and delicious reduction—is paralleled in the mindset of its narrator, Eddie Plum. When we meet Eddie, he’s a chatty, swaggering, drug-addled mental patient with a too-casual relationship to violence; a few unspecified encounters with women have deservedly landed him in a California asylum. Following an unlikely escape abetted by a theater major posing as a phony doctor, Eddie picks up a long-dormant thread of his old life by rekindling his friendship with Shelly, a fellow horseracing enthusiast making his unambitious living selling kitschy American records to overseas customers. The wildness of Eddie’s brain slowly recalibrates to life outside the mental institution, and the breathless sentences of the book’s first chapters become shorter and more measured. Without overtly signaling it, Ballantine also sneakily depicts Eddie’s adjusting and evolving perspective on women as he reckons with his own worst tendencies.
But the heart of Whirlaway is in the friendship between Eddie and Shelly, both damaged and jittery in their own ways. It’s an emotional snare you never see coming: Ballantine’s writing seems to at first echo the immutably (and sometimes noxiously) masculine writers of the 20th century like Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, Tom Robbins, and particularly Charles Bukowski (who’s mentioned by name, a phantom flitting throughout the book’s Southern California backdrop). But the writing is so good, so fluid and funny, that its madcap bombast has already won you over before the emotional beats kick in. The unpredictability of Ballantine’s wonderfully precise descriptions—he’s particularly adroit at pinpointing smells—makes reading just a few quick chapters feel like observing the world afresh. Whirlaway could’ve coasted on its hilarity alone, but following Eddie as he regains his footing in the real world gives the reader a new lease on life, too. The long odds of Ballantine’s unorthodox tale pay off.