“Impressive … Memorable characters inhabit a surprising, engaging story of American idealism and its dark opposite.”
“Scrappy and smart, intently observed and often darkly funny, these people navigate lives where everyday struggle and pleasure ride precariously on a deep undercurrent of menace.”
—Chelsey Johnson, author of Stray City
“What Castleberry has written is not a novel about UFOs or cults or rock-and-roll but rather a literary saga that dauntlessly explores what it takes to believe.”
—Rachel Beanland, author of Florence Adler Swims Forever
You probably won’t find a more ambitious debut novel this season than Brian Castleberry’s Nine Shiny Objects (Custom House). It’s a sweeping, allegorical and cautionary tale about hate, prejudice, prophets, utopias, the meaning of both life and death, and, oh yeah, chasing after unidentified flying objects. It’s also disturbing, enriching, challenging and sometimes frustrating.
The story unfolds over 40 years, from 1947 until 1987, with each chapter moving forward in time and place, introducing us to new characters who interact or connect somehow with people we’ve already met.
It starts with a failed actor, hustler and drifter named Oliver Danville, who wants to learn more about nine pulsating lights seen over the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. As he hitchhikes west, he meets Saul Penrod, an Idaho farmer. Saul and his wife Martha are enchanted by Oliver’s journey — so much so, they oddly decide that their two sons, Paul and Jack, can run the farm. They decide to help Oliver by driving him to Washington.
They never return.
Oliver and his sister, Eileen, become the first “seekers,” a group of idealists, outcasts and others who think they can create a utopian community where issues like race and sexuality don’t matter — an even more radical idea in 1947 than it is today.
In 1952, a lonely waitress, Claudette Donen, encounters Saul and Eileen, who has left her husband to join Oliver. She explains their vision, dissuading Claudette of her fear that they’re some type of religious cult or church. They believe that the lights in Washington are tied to aliens who want to help humans create a perfect society on Earth. Claudette is skeptical, but she’s so attracted to Eileen that she decides to risk a relationship. But by that time Claudette moves forward, Eileen is gone, and all Claudette finds are blueprints for Eden Gardens, the seekers’ vision for a utopian town.
By 1957, the community has found a place to build its haven — a location in the suburbs of Long Island. Stanley West, an African American with the heart of a poet, encounters local residents when he gets stuck in the snow near Eden Gardens. The more the neighbors observe, the more Eden Gardens fans the flames of hatred and prejudice that have horrific, stark consequences.
New characters driven by the larger events of the next three decades unfold in the following chapters as the name “Penrod” hangs aloft with an ominous presence.
Because Nine Shiny Objects is unconventional, I suspect it will find most fans among those who like a challenge in their fiction. Scenes and dialogue are staged well, but plot developments seem rationed like the last drops of water in a desert canteen. You’ll also find some of the longest sentences this side of William Faulkner.
With that said, Castleberry deserves credit for tackling a story that asks big questions in an unusual and challenging structure. The book rises and falls on how invested you become in the new-but-connected characters you meet as each chapter unfolds in a new time period. The narrative strands tighten powerfully and memorably around the fates of Saul Penrod’s sons.
In the end, the place where it matters most in any novel, Nine Shiny Objects indeed becomes a worthy journey.