“Maze of Blood” by Marly Youmans, Mercer Press, 224 pages, $24
Conall Weaver is a writer, a weaver of tales. He authors pulp novels filled with Celtic warriors, Mongol hordes and fabulous adventurers and swordsmen. Those things are in short supply in Cross Plains, Texas, where Conall lives with his invalid mother, who is dying of tuberculosis, and his father, the local physician.
What Cross Plains has plenty of is cowboys, cactus, dust and heat. “What did you need of hell when you had Texas?” Conall wonders rhetorically.
No one in Cross Plains really understands Conall or respects his work as a writer despite the fact that he has made considerable money at it and has a string of titles to his credit. A real man, a cowboy, works at a real job. Conall can’t bring himself to conform to those expectations. “(He) couldn’t bear to become the little thing that people here wanted him to be.”
Conall’s father is distant and always too busy for anyone, including his dying wife or Conall. Conall’s mother clings to her son. She is crazed by her life, failed expectations and disease. A dreamy woman, she affects a slight Irish accent, claims to be descended from Celtic royalty and recites poetry when she is not listening to Conall read stories or poetry.
Conall escapes into fantasies of mystic barbarian cultures. But as hellish as home may be, it’s home, and every home has some charms. Conall has his perfect pet, his dog Caradog, “who all his days had asked for nothing but to leap with him in the sun or to lie close to him on the bed at night.” Then he meets the sylph-like Maybelline, a school teacher who aspires to write and wants advice from Conall.
“The girl broke into his house like a wave.
“Windows were thrown open to let the breeze in, and the crickets sawed like mad on their dry, chitinous fiddles. Somewhere in the background a radio played a cowboy song about horse thieves and a broken heart.”
Conall is smitten.
“She dazzled him. A kind of bewitchment was shed from her fingertips as she spoke. In the distance, crickets were chirping, and a few spotted frogs were throat-singing — their vocal sacs emitting a series of rasping thrills.
“Conall said that the frogs had been Mongolians in another life but had been exiled to Texas to repent of their sins. He told her that he had called up the moon especially for her and that the harvest moon belonged to Ceres.”
So “Maze of Blood” is a love story. It’s an adventure story. It’s mystic in places. It’s literary and poetic. It’s a Texas Gothic tale. All that is wonderful, but the book does have one hurdle for readers to overcome: The end is at the beginning. Caradog has died. Maybelline is no longer Conall’s best girl. And Conall, hero of the tale, has taken a fatal step almost before the plot finds its first complication. Then Youmans writes the story forward from a past point. It is told in first-person in the rich and sometimes fantastic voice of Conall. This may sound confusing, and in the hands of a lesser writer, it would be. But with Youmans, you can count on the entree being just as sweet as the dessert — no matter which one is served first.