The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton

By Michael Collins

Edgar Allen Poe has always been one of the great mysteries of American literature. People can’t be sure how to read him. As a hack, the inventor of the detective story and science-fiction, dabbler in all things sensational? Or as a genius, his work suffused with postmodern irony and self-awareness, learned asides and dubious theory? In what spirit should he be approached? With respectful seriousness, or as the creator of spirited literary larks? Was he cruelly disregarded by his native land, or rather, like a nineteenth-century Jerry Lewis, wildly overrated by the French (because, as Eliot sniped, he improved in translation). The truth, as James Russell Lowell understood, lies somewhere in-between. Break it down as “three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge.”

Michael Collins is an Irish author (and “extreme athlete”) who has, in The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton, brought us as Poe-esque a dog’s breakfast of a novel as one could imagine. A good part – if not quite three-fifths – is sheer fudge. That is to say, it is sensational, campy, and somewhat absurd genre trash. The story is a campus mystery/thriller that begins with the title character – once a promising young literary talent, now a middle-aged college creative writing instructor – botching his suicide. Reduced to a semi-vegetative state, his literary legacy falls to buxom grad student Adi Wiltshire (we know she’s buxom because she’s “known to have tit-fucked no less than two Pulitzer Prize recipients”). On moving in to Pendleton’s house, Adi finds a box filled with copies of a self-published semi-autobiographical thriller about a child murder. Upon publishing it, with the assistance of Allen Horowitz, a hornier, more successful writer of Pendleton’s generation, it goes on to become a critical and commercial hit. The wrinkle is that the crime Pendleton describes at the heart of his book is real, making the events it describes potential evidence in solving a decade-old mystery.

The campus of Bannockburn, Pendleton’s mid-West college, is an oddly Gothic location. It is exotic. We don’t usually think of the American mid-West as being exotic or Gothic, but this is the effect Collins has achieved, resurrecting a kind of Grant Wood-creepiness. Adding to the sense of distance and oddity is the fact that the book is, weirdly, set in the mid-1980s. This is weird because it is hard to understand why Collins would set the novel in a time and a place he seems to have so little sympathy for, or understanding of. A lot of the slutty parts, in particular, are anachronistic (eleven-year-old girls in the rural mid-West, of whatever socio-economic background, were not getting butterfly tattoos on their thighs in the 1970s). The backdating seems to only exist in order to make this world – a world where, we learn, Adi has even been raised with an ape by hippy parents – a little more alien and unreal.

Along with all of this weirdness comes a healthy greasing of cliché. Pendleton himself, the creative writing teacher with a great future behind him, is a familiar figure to any reader of campus lit. Meanwhile, the cop on the murderer’s trail is correctly identified by Horowitz as “the stuff of pulp fiction.” There is even a painful scene near the end where he is threatened by his superior with being taken off the case. “This isn’t time to play the lone wolf,” his boss tells him. Before you are finished rolling your eyes over that one he responds with “They want me taken out, right? They got to you.” Sigh.

And yet, despite having a trash factor score that even Poe might have envied, this is an oddly compelling novel. Like any imagining of the American Gothic there is a genuine uneasiness about the “reality” that American life, its conventions and mythologies, guards against – “the bogeyman horror that had come to characterize the American experience.” Every family has its dirty secrets, its hidden bodies, its dark rooms painted in gusts of semen. And, when he wants to turn it on, Collins has a knack for describing this horror, a genius like Pendleton’s (and Poe’s) for tapping into the “subtext of his culture.” One only has to consider what he has to say about story-telling and plagiarism to see just how in tune he is with the spirit of our current literary age.

Can one finally separate the campus from the camp? Stephen King’s dark fantasies from the National Book Awards short list? The point, I think, is that you can’t. High art is always, consciously or not, plagiarizing from the low. Of most of the work we acknowledge to be genius, two-fifths is probably sheer fudge. In its own perverse way, The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton is an acknowledgment of this “cultural subtext,” an expression of sympathy for that sugary bogeyman who resides in the foul paperback-and-bone shop of the heart.

Review first published June 23, 2006.


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