TAUT AND COMPELLING, Motherless Child, Glen Hirshberg’s excellent new novel, begins with a pair of young, single mothers out for a night of music at a local club. Aficionados of classic American pop musical as embodied by Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, and Kitty Wells, Natalie and Sophie appear to have lucked into the perfect evening for their excursion when they learn that a musician known as the Whistler is about to take the stage. The inheritor of the bluegrass-rockabilly tradition, the Whistler is a scarecrow of a figure, dressed in work clothes and a sombrero that obscures his face. Natalie, in particular, cannot believe her good fortune. Then the Whistler steps to the microphone, his lips pursed to deliver his trademark sound…
And the narrative jumps, to Natalie and Sophie climbing out of unconsciousness. It is dawn, and the two women are in the backseat of Sophie’s car, half-naked and covered in blood. Neither can remember what transpired in the depths of the night. That the Whistler was part of it, and that there was pain involved, is all either can say for sure.
It rapidly becomes clear, however, that the musician has done more than engage the friends in an especially unsavory ménage a trois. In the short second chapter, Hirshberg shows us the Whistler, and it is obvious that he is some kind of supernatural creature, most likely a vampire. In a memorable scene in the following chapter, Natalie reports for her shift waiting tables at the local Waffle House and finds herself the center of attention, stupefyingly irresistible to the late-night customers and staff. When Sophie stops in to visit her, she manifests the same mysterious glamour. And when the Whistler and the woman who accompanies him appear in the parking lot, Natalie learns the full extent of what has happened to her and Sophie.
Here, Hirshberg does something unusual: he withdraws slightly, informing us that the Whistler and then the woman he calls Mother tell Natalie something but offering no specifics. Of course, such a move heightens narrative tension by stoking the reader’s curiosity. In the context of a novel concerned with vampires, however, it has additional implications. From Bram Stoker’s Dracula, through works as varied as Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Suzy McKee Charnas’s The Vampire Tapestry, Dan Simmons’s Children of the Night, and Justin Cronin’s The Passage, vampire novels have tended to take as one of their main subjects the history, taxonomy, proclivities, and weaknesses of these supernatural beings. In some ways, each of these books’ writers is doing no more than Stoker did when he ransacked Central and Eastern European folk traditions for the elements that would compose Count Dracula. Yet, just as Dracula is susceptible to study and, therefore, ultimately to defeat by Professor Van Helsing, most vampire narratives re-enact that process of analyzing the undead in order to bring them within an epistemological framework that makes them at once comprehensible and vanquishable.
Hirshberg, though, is not interested in constructing any such framework. Instead, he shows us the effect that the mysterious information the Whistler and Mother impart to Natalie has on her. After they (surprisingly) depart the parking lot, she returns inside the restaurant, announces she’s quitting, effective immediately, and leaves, taking Sophie with her. The women make a brief stop at the trailer of ...read more