THE CONTORTIONISTS: FICTION WORTH READING (UNLIKE TRUMP’S UNRELENTING STREAM OF LIES)*
Since January 2017, I have mostly gotten away from reading fiction – except, of course, the unrelenting stream of lies spewing from the worst and most dishonest and dangerous person in the United States. It’s an avocational hazard for political bloggers.
As respite from the prevaricator-in-chief, I have had the honor – and pleasure – of reading drafts of my brother Rob's second novel,The Contortionists, set for publication November 17, 2020 by Signature Books, and another of his novels he has sent to prospective publishers.
I grew up in a family of artists. My father, as many of you know and as described below,** was a visual artist and an art professor for most of my life. He was a trumpeter, having played in a jazz band, had a beautiful singing voice and taught himself to play the piano. My two older sisters were talented musicians, Christy on piano, Kelly on violin and vocals. My youngest brother Nick was a talented pianist, dancer and actor.
Rob, six years my junior, rebuffed our father’s advice never to become artists for a living. Most artists starve and live in unrequited anguish over meaning, relevance, quality and approval. In addition to Rob’s award-winning talent as a trumpeter, he became a writer of fiction, bolstered by dual degrees in English and psychology and a refusal to strangle his talents by pursuing a masters’ degree in creative writing.
As for me, well, the nine months my mom forced me to take piano lessons was the longest, most painful period of my life. Probably hers too. While Renee´ couldn’t carry a tune, she understood and instilled in her children the intrinsic value and richness of the arts to lives well lived.
My brother Robert H. Van Wagoner has a gift. Through beautiful, lyrical prose he tells stories, often dark stories, invariably exploring the mystery and complexity of the human psyche. The Contortionists is a beautifully written, psychological page-turner surrounding a little boy gone missing. Rob also narrates the audio version.
Professor of Creative Writing Emeritus Levi Peterson characterizes the novel this way:
"This is a stark tragedy, superbly told. At is center is the disappearance of a five-year-old boy. A large, multifarious cast of extended family members, would-be helpers, detectives, and curious onloookers demonstrates Van Wagoner's ability to project imaginatively into a wide variety of human beings. He also proves himself a master architect of plot and structure, dividing the novel into brief episodes, some advancing the current action, others clarifying crucial happenings from both the recent and remote past. All serve to make it a powerful and mesmerizing read."
Professor of Creative Writing Brenda Miller says this:
"In The Contortionists Robert Van Wagoner gives us a page-turning mystery bolstered by writing of the highest caliber. Utah's severe landscape serves as the backdrop for this author's sharp insights on a community twisted by the loss of a child, while the nuanced plot builds to an extended allegory on the climate of terror in which we now find ourselves living. Dare I say it? With The Contortionists we may be witnessing a renaissance in American literature."
With permission of the publisher, the cover and jacket are below, along with the short first chapter. Those who follow my blog will recognize the cover art uses one of our dad's paintings.
In the Garden
The neighbor, Natalie MacMillan, would tell essentially the same story as Melissa Christopher, the missing boy’s mother. They would both say the child had been gone twenty minutes before anyone noticed, twenty silent minutes book-ended by two telephone calls, the first from the mother to tell the neighbor five-year-old Joshua was on his way to the birthday party, the second from the neighbor to ask the mother if she had sent him yet.
Two hours later scarcely a person in Utah hadn’t heard the terrible news. But in the upper Ogden Valley near a town named Eden, Karley did not yet know her nephew had gone missing. Bare-bottomed, she bent to examine her peas and lettuces. They were up, tiny things yet, but up. It was a gift for Hans, this lingering. She could feel his eyes on her.
Smiling, Hans reached to the nightstand for his water. He enjoyed this view through the open French doors, his wife’s dark hair still riled from lovemaking. Playful Karley, she was childlike in gardens and skin. He returned the water to the nightstand and rolled from the bed, stretched, then gathered his jeans from the floor. Zipping and buttoning, he wandered through the open doors. At the edge of the deck, he wiggled his bare toes and contemplated the twenty-odd yards of wet grass between himself and his wife. The hard May rain had softened and the interloping mist braced his naked torso. He’d nearly decided to return for a shirt when Karley stood up.
Cocking an ear, she fingered back her hair. Yes, she’d heard correctly, the downshift whine of a vehicle slowing on the highway below. She listened to the car turn up their long drive, the cascade of wheels spinning fast in gravel. Smiling over her shoulder, she primly tugged down the hem of her T-shirt. It barely covered her bottom. She might almost make it to the house if she ran. Instead she turned back toward the highway, her gaze aimed at the gap in the shrub oak and ponderosa. When Caleb’s Jeep crested, moving much too fast, she and Hans exchanged a quick glance.
“You’re here?” the boy shouted. “We’ve been calling for over an hour!” Long-legged, he hurried through flowerbeds, over crowning boulders too massive to excavate.
Karley stretched the shirt to her bare thighs and watched her eighteen-year-old brother lumber into the garden, his approach heedless of all including the young plants he crushed beneath his feet. Karley received him with upstretched arms, hands reaching to still his face.
“Slow down,” she said. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
Hans started down the stairs. He could hear the boy’s voice but couldn’t make out the words. Karley said something, and again Hans failed to understand. Crossing the yard quickly, he tried to read lips. Karley stared up at Caleb’s face, gave her head an incredulous shake, then touched her throat and took a half step back. Turning–Caleb still talking, doing better now, making sense–she met Hans’s gaze.
She was a good athlete, Karley, sure-footed. She crossed the wet lawn at a sprint without slipping, her feet black to the ankles with mud.
Rob’s first novel Dancing Naked, a haunting piece also published by Signature Books, was awarded the Utah Book Award by the Utah Center for the Book, and the Utah Original Writing Competition’s Publication Prize, the top literary award given by the Utah Humanities Council and the State of Utah.
His short stories and author interviews have appeared in periodicals, anthologies and online publications, and have been selected for various awards, including Carolina Quarterly’s Charles B. Wood Award for Distinguished Writing, Shenandoah’s Jeanne Charpiot Goodheart Award for Fiction, Sunstone’s Brookie and D.K. Brown Memorial Fiction Award, and Weber: The Contemporary West’s Dr. O. Marvin Lewis Award for Best Fiction. He has been featured as faculty/presenter at numerous writing workshops and retreats, including Writers@Work, YoungArts, Sawtooth Writers Conference, National Undergraduate Literature Conference, and Southern Utah University Writers Conference, and has been a featured reader more times than he can recall.
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com. Rob’s next novel, a beautifully written suspense drama that takes place in Utah, Wyoming and Norway, will be published by Signature Books November17, 2020 fall. This novel, The Contortionists, which Rob himself narrates for the audio version, is a psychological page-turner about a missing child in a predominantly Mormon community.
**Richard J Van Wagoner is my father. His list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in a number of traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father's work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his art work. The photographs of my father's art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers