Eric Scott Fischl grabbed my attention in a big way recently with his harrowing debut novel Doctor Potter’s Medicine Show, and only tightened his grip on it with this follow-up. But once again, caveat lector. Just as its predecessor held considerable peril for sympathetic vomiters and those triggered by sexual violence, The Trials of Solomon Parker starts off with scenes of underground mine disaster so well-researched and vividly described that the claustrophobic or those living with PTSD might find it rough going. And then there’s that litany of other horrors, including domestic violence, that follows. Eek.
Those who tough it out, though, have a reward in store for them that might even seem to carry a whiff of Kurt Vonnegut, or perhaps even Gene Wolfe, to it. For, like its predecessor, this is not merely a quality work of historical fiction. There’s Time Travel as well as copper in them thar hills!
Our hero, last seen as a very young man learning the hard way that he and his brother Agammemnon were not cut out to be the next Frank and Jesse James, starts off this novel as a sad old man full of regrets, arthritis and rotgut whiskey. He has a wife who’s spent 16 years in a frontier mental institution — she once burned down their home and everything they had, and doesn’t believe that Solomon succeeded in rescuing their infant son from the blaze. He has a job he’s really too old for, loading copper ore into carts a quarter mile underground and supervising a crew of younger men — including his now-grown son, Owen — who do the same. He has a gambling habit that today would be treated as an addiction but in 1916 just means he owes a whole lot of money to the local crime lord. And he has a friend.
Guess which of these things turns out to be his biggest problem?
For his friend, Billy, is a half-breed Indian, whose uncle is a medicine man the same way that the last novel’s mad scientist was an alchemist. In the world of Fischl’s Old West, both alchemy and Native American folk beliefs are objectively real and actually work.
So when Uncle Marked Face meets Solomon Parker not long after the aforementioned highly deadly mine disaster, well, imagine “The Monkey’s Paw” meets Peggy Sue Got Married with a bit of Slaughterhouse-Five thrown in.
Yeah. Oh, and as an added twist, since Billy is present for Sol’s dice game with Marked Face, Billy, too, gets unstuck in time. And since he’s a lot younger than Sol, well, I already mentioned the domestic violence. Billy’s dad and uncle are mean AF, and adult Billy had the gnarly scars to prove it. How lovely an adolescence to completely relive!
The stories of the dad, Bad Bird, and Uncle Marked Face, and, for good measure, those of “mythological”* brothers Maatakssi and Siinatssi, are interwoven with the Groundhog lives of Sol and Billy, giving this novel a density of narrative layering that’s what reminds me the most of Gene Wolfe, though Fischl makes it all feel much more accessible than Wolfe ever does. Fans of David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself might feel strongly winked at, too, as Fischl also plays around with collapsing identities. Phew!
I worry here that I’m making this book sound too highbrow or complex. It is both of these, but only in the best possible way: The Trials of Solomon Parker never forgets that its primary purpose is entertainment. It’s telling us a story in a straightforward and immediate way, and keeps it all clean and clear and seemingly effortless. A reader can rip through it in a night or two as though it were just another nifty, if heartbreaking, pulp, and be just as happy as the one who slows down and engages it as a crazy philosophical/metaphysical puzzle. This is none too common in my experience.**
If this is truly only Fischl’s second novel (and even if it isn’t) he’s really going to be someone to watch. I’m not sure how he’s ever going to top this one, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to try. And I, for one, can’t wait until he does.
I’m a Fischl fangurl now, for sure.
*As Fischl goes to great pains to emphasize in his Afterword, the Native American mythology related in this novel is his own invention.To paraphrase how Lloyd Alexander explained Prydain in relation to Wales, the Maatakssi/Siintassi material is meant to have “the feeling if not the fact” of Native American folk belief.
**Speaking of my experience, I grew up in a mining region (Carbon County in Wyoming) with a very similar history to that of Butte, MT so this book’s rich background details of mining life, mine disasters and nascent labor rights agitation felt perfectly realized to me. Yet another reason this book actually got five stars out of me over at GoodReads.