IN THE OPENING PAGES of Skip Horack’s moving sophomore novel, The Other Joseph, his narrator recalls how he lost his left pinkie: “My name is Roy Joseph,” he writes, “and I have nine fingers.” The allusion, which also appears as an epigraph to the book’s final section, comes from James Dickey’s Deliverance, when the graphic artist, Ed Gentry, remarks about “the number of missing fingers” in the rural South, “the country of the nine-fingered people,” and why he believes it’s so widespread: “There’s always something wrong,” the city boy insists, “with people in the country.” It’s a bit of a loaded observation — a callous remark made by an outsider — but when Horack invokes the reference, both in the beginning and in the end of his story, it’s as if to agree. It’s as if to say, yes, that’s true — and here’s one of their stories.
The Other Joseph is meticulously structured as a book within a book, a journey of two brothers from Louisiana who live their adult lives apart: in a foreword, Thomas “Tommy” Joseph introduces us to his younger sibling, Roy, and the “disjointed, untitled ‘notes’” he has discovered and turned into a manuscript. Now, 41, Tommy hasn’t seen Roy in two decades — “I was twenty and he was twelve when I saw him last” — and there’s a great possibility he’ll never see him again. I say “great possibility” — that is, I don’t assert they won’t be reunited — because to do so would undermine the hopefulness of Horack’s narrative. As a Navy SEAL, Tommy went missing during a botched training mission, imprisoned but presumed dead after a failed mission in the Middle East, for over 20 years. Then, only months before Tommy’s release, Roy allegedly drowned while working on an oil rig off the coast of Guinea. Afterwards, Tommy comes into possession of Roy’s papers.
It would appear Tommy and Roy have an editor-writer relationship — Tommy as the editor, Roy as the writer — but it’s not quite a dichotomy: it’d be more accurate to claim that both Roy and Tommy, in their respective absences, give voice to one another. On the surface, the fact that Roy vanishes as Tommy returns might seem stupidly coincidental, or too convenient of a plot device, but the move succeeds, because it reveals the power and beauty of familial love without becoming trite or sentimental. Though he knows this draft won’t be what “New York, or anyone wants” (they want the sensationalism of a soldier escaping his captors), Tommy pursues Roy’s tale and not his own. Just as Roy, we learn, sought to follow Tommy’s.
After Tommy’s preface, The Other Joseph picks up with Roy detailing the day he accidentally chopped off his little finger: everything that has happened — and everything that will happen — pivots around that moment. It’s an external rendering of his internal pain, a debt to Dickey but also a trademark of Horack’s visceral and exacting language: when the environment wounds his characters, it’s often both to literally cripple and to metaphorically hint at a larger trouble. For Roy, it’s his sense of loss. At 29, he monotonously wastes away on an oil rig in the Gulf of New Mexico, “about thirty nautical miles south of Grand Isle, Louisiana,” where he lives in an Airstream travel trailer. On the afternoon he negligently allows his hand to “rest on the drum of the hoist,” and a “thin wire” shears through his flesh, he reveals that he recently received an email from Joni Hammons, a high school-aged girl living in San Francisco, who claims “to be [his] dead brother’s daughter.” It’s an alarming piece of news, not only because Roy was never aware he had a niece, but because he has been alone — without family — for so long. His parents died in a car accident, and he has had to avoid the farm where he grew-up in Dry Springs.
Horack has a clear attraction to the mythos of place, especially in the southern United States. Roy, for instance, has a special connection to the old Joseph farm: he carries a vial of dirt from the property he had to sell around his neck. (When Roy was 19, he slept with a 16-year-old, and the girl’s mother and father reported him to the police — leaving him essentially exiled from his hometown.) Horack’s first novel, The Eden Hunter, traces an escaped slave, Kau, trying to find a home like the one taken from him in Africa. The hunter roams throughout Spanish Florida after the War of 1812, looking for a section of forest still untouched and unchartered. And in The Other Joseph, set 200 years later, the region has a similar malleability: the Joseph land shifts from having dirt associated with a Civil War legend to nothing more than a canister of sediment hanging around a lonely man’s neck, reminding him of what he used to have.
Like Kau, it’s Roy’s desire to recreate some semblance of his lost life that ultimately leads him to drive across the country, accompanied by his dog, and visit his alleged niece Joni in California. Even without expecting a grand welcome (Joni’s mother, Nancy, calls to curtly say her daughter made a mistake in contacting him), Roy devises a careful if faulty plan, in part because he has no other choice. Given the state’s laws, he can spend “five ‘working’ days,” “plus a Saturday and a Sunday,” in the Bay Area without having to locally register as a sex offender. To throw an absurd legitimacy into the mix — in case, for instance, a police officer stops him in Berkeley, and he doesn’t wish to reveal he is tracking down an underage girl of whom he may (but may not) be related — Roy hires Viktor Fedorov, “an international marriage broker” who once helped his friend secure a bride. When he arrives in the city, he plans to meet with a number of Russian women who wish to marry him in order to obtain a green card. And it’s with more than just a promise of documentation: by 30, Roy is banking on being a rich man, retiring somewhere (anywhere) and collecting the “death benefit” and “insurance payouts” he has been accumulating in the stock market with the help of Mr. Donny Lee Scott, his crackpot “accountant/adviser.”
It sounds ridiculous, but everything is there — rather brilliantly — for a reason. Roy’s attempt to rejoin the world, to abandon his laconic state and search for his niece, is both well-paced and well-plotted. The dog, Sam, acts as the road trip buddy. The sex offense provides a distinct timeline, an urgency to when Roy fails — and later, stalls — in locating Joni. And the scenes of Roy following (nearly stalking) his niece might be boring without Victor’s frequent antics, or the days he spends with Marina, the complicated and sad lady he entertains wedding but never will. Reading Horack’s novel, I thought of Tom Perrotta’s review of Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins — a defense of sorts, in The New York Times Book Review, for the “big, old-school novel.” Though Perrotta acknowledges the daring bouts of recent experimentation (Teju Cole’s Open City, Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station), he only needs to read authors like Atkinson to remember the immense pleasure and importance of the genre. With The Other Joseph, I felt a similar reinvigoration, as I was reminded of the joys of such a book: poignant character development, sharp dialogue, and — perhaps most notably — witty descriptions.
Because The Other Joseph is very funny. According to Antonya Nelson, the deciding factor in awarding Horack the Bakeless Prize for his short story collection, The Southern Cross, was a line that made her laugh. And it would likely be hard to disagree. Horack has a subtle, disarming sense of humor, all the more effective because he doesn’t overuse it. Here’s Roy declaring his theory on trailers: “The secret to living well in a trailer is in not letting possessions pile up on you.” And here he is observing the danger of apartment buildings in San Francisco: “A thrifty lady buys a used toaster, then everyone dies.” And finally, here he is describing his ID: “Nearly every year the Louisiana legislature came up with some new degradation, and as of 2006 I had a pervert driver’s license to go along with the sex offender identification card I was required to always have on my person. They love me at the DMV.”
A lot could go wrong on Roy’s journey, but really, it never does. Yet that doesn’t make it boring. The “other” in The Other Joseph becomes purposely and beautifully ambiguous, tying each of them together in an unbreakable bond. It can mean Joni, who both Roy and (later) Tommy go to find; it can stand for Roy, the one who has jotted down these memories; or it can signify Tommy, the person who has structured Roy’s words into a coherent order. But the main force of The Other Joseph — and Roy’s biggest problem — is what he will share with Joni about Tommy, when he gets the opportunity to talk with her: “I imagined Joni would be asking a lot of questions if and when I found her, and I wanted to be able to give her more than my foggy boyhood memories of my brother.” He carries a photo album with him, and on his trip to the west coast, he decides to stop in Nevada to meet with Lionel Purcell, a SEAL buddy of Tommy’s who he remembers from the funeral. Purcell was with Tommy when he disappeared, and Roy hopes he might have a few answers. Though Purcell offers a few more details about what led to Tommy’s supposed death, and though Roy gets a solid day of illegal shooting done in the mountains, the preamble before San Francisco hardly amounts to much. Or rather, it doesn’t change anything at all. His understanding of Tommy remains the same, and when he at last speaks with Joni, in secret from her mother, the meeting doesn’t produce a tangible transformation either. He won’t be the fun-loving uncle who pops in unannounced, who takes you drunk fishing at four in the morning. But that doesn’t matter.
What matters, in the end, is that he tried.