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October 03, 2004

Review: Perfect Circle

The short version is this: Sean Stewart’s Perfect Circle is a masterpiece. It’s a moody, compelling ghost story that manages dark humor, chills, and sadness all in a fairly compact 243 pages.

The long version is a bit more complicated.

Sean Stewart has been writing books for some time now; while he’s never had a bestseller, he has managed to have two New York Times Notable Books (Galveston and Resurrection Man), and received various awards for his works. His books are typically classified as either Fantasy or Science Fiction, although the fantastic elements that inhabit his books are solidly outside the typical speculative fiction norm.

Perfect Circle is no different. The protagonist, Will “Dead” Kennedy earned his nickname not only because of his love of punk music, but for his ability to see and interact with the dead. But the dead in this book are no mere Sixth Sense haunts looking for release from life; these are often malevolent spirits bent on punishing the living or using them for their selfish needs.

And what ghosts they are—well drawn characters in their own right, whether it’s the dead waiter in a restaurant still doing his job or Will’s Uncle Billy who shows up in a gloriously eerie role.

He was still wearing his Brown & Root jumpsuit. His naked feet stuck out from his pant legs, white as cut mushrooms. I always remembered him as grumpy and middle-aged, but now I realized he had died at only thirty-two or thirty-three. My age. I got a powerful feeling that he had been waiting for me: waiting years for me to come down to the concrete bayou and be washed in that black water.

For all of the moments of spookiness, though, this isn’t a book about ghosts; it’s a book about guilt and pain and loss. Early in the book, Will introduces the readers to the most important themes: “Sometimes a guy is haunted for a really good reason.”

Will himself is haunted by the dead and by his past, and there seems, throughout the book, to be very little difference between the two. Where much traditional speculative fiction is focused on monumental themes or heroism on a grand scale, Perfect Circle is focused on Will’s struggle to save himself—not that even Will realizes his own struggle through most of the book.

Perfect Circle is no simple journey. It doesn’t follow an easy plot from point a to point b; it follows a man who has yet to come to terms with his own past and the pain that he feels. It’s a challenging read with heavy themes and moments that are, emotionally, real.

In some ways, it probably helps to be in your thirties: old enough to feel the years but young enough to feel that you can still put things right. In the same way, it might help to not be one of those people who happily walks away from mistakes with a casual “no regrets” attitude; this book requires regrets and a desire to make things better.

For Will, those regrets revolve around his failed marriage and his daughter—and Stewart’s treatment of Will’s memories is emotionally raw and painful.

I was lost for months. Couldn’t find my way back from yesterday, from the nights I was out listening to bands when I should have been home, from the fight we had about how much the stupid bedroom lamp had cost. I let her make me so mad I grabbed her by the arms and shook her, hard: and something came down like steel shutters behind her eyes. I was trying to get my shit together, but every road was a ghost road; one wrong turn and I was back to the time we were making love and I found her crying under me. No worse feeling than that, unless maybe it’s Will, I want a divorce.

And that is Stewart’s style: simple, direct, and devastating.

Luckily, Stewart has a twisted sense of humor and no fear of putting darkly hilarious scenes into the book to lighten the mood. One of them happens when Will confronts his ex-wife’s new husband, Don.

Josie gasped. “Don! Oh my God. Are you okay?” she said, with such obvious concern that I had to hit him in the face with the sprinkler again.

It’s a moment so obviously wrong, so obviously contorted, that the reader can’t help laugh at the rightness of it. In a sense, that describes the character of Will perfectly: wrong, confused, flawed, and still a guy that will hopefully get it right before the book ends.

While the movie does tend toward heavy, dark, and painful, it never drifts into complete nihilism. In fact, there is just enough room for some happiness. Not a complete resolution, and certainly not a complete redemption, but a positive note that makes you think things might be able to work out. And, in that, it is a very hopeful book.

For people who like tidy plots, Stewart’s books Nobody’s Son and Galveston might be more appealing. For me, though, the messy like life, jagged paths taken through Perfect Circle and it’s spiritual brother Resurrection Man are preferable. Perfect Circle is blessed with exquisitely drawn characters, painfully real emotions, a difficult path to what resolution it provides, and some of the best writing in the field.

Posted by zombyboy at October 3, 2004 11:43 PM
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