“The Epicureans: A Novel” By: Charles McNair
“The Epicureans: A Novel”
Author: Charles McNair
Publisher: Tune & Fairweather
McNair’s New Novel Is a Transgressive Thriller
Charles McNair, Dothan native and Alabama graduate, has two previous novels: “Land O’Goshen,” 1994, a novel set in a dystopic future Alabama ruled by tyrannical fundamentalists, and “Pickett’s Charge,” 2013, the story of a 114-year-old Confederate soldier, Threadgill Pickett, who escapes from his nursing home to find and kill the oldest living Union soldier, against whom he has a long-standing grudge.
Both novels received a lot of praise, especially for McNair’s fertile, zany imagination.
The plots and characters are unlikely, but fascinating. “Pickett’s Charge” contains a pair of brothers building a time machine and a community of blacks and whites living in utopian harmony.
McNair is a literary imp who loves to push limits, and the first chapter of “The Epicureans,” nine pages long, is a genuine tour-de-force.
In Germany’s Black Forest on December 21, the solstice and darkest day of the year, we meet a group of 25 billionaires gathered to feast. These characters are African warlords, a British Duke and Duchess, a gay industrialist from Nagasaki and his partner, a Russian arms merchant, two Danes rich from looted Nazi art treasures, all thoroughly depraved creatures.
They are served the most extraordinary meal imaginable: 24 courses, rare, exotic, mouth-watering, followed by “an astronomically expensive French cheese board” and a grappa “salvaged from a Roman wreck at the bottom of the Aegean.”
The champagne is served in 700-year-old Venetian crystal.
It is all disgustingly indulgent and then we learn the piece de resistance will be a boy of six and his sister, four years old, referred to as Hansel and Gretel.
The chef will prepare the children and then be killed himself, his family paid a princely sum.
The Epicureans are more than gourmands; they are cannibals.
AND, we’re told, next year’s banquet will be hosted in a small town in West Alabama, near Tuscaloosa, by Mr. Wood, richest man in the South, in Wood Castle, the biggest dwelling in the South, 100 rooms, dwarfing Biltmore Mansion. In his lair, Wood has a roomful of TV screens on which he can watch everything that is happening in his town from dozens of CCTV cameras. He has a stealth passenger jet with a wood-burning fireplace. Don’t ask.
Wood is a Bond-movie super villain. In Viet Nam, where he spent months in the jungle, alone, behind enemy lines, he became addicted to murder and cannibalism. He’s a sadistic bully and a sexual monster who terrorizes and bribes to get his way, and the novel has some graphic scenes—not quite porn, but rough and erotic.
For his feast, Wood already has his eye on Will and Mary Rogers, young twins of Elmore Rogers, a badly wounded Gulf War veteran. He’s divorced from the beautiful Kelly Rogers, who suffered so from post-partum depression she tried to kill her children and is heading for suicide.
The tension here is whether the nearly omnipotent Mr. Wood will be able to snatch and devour our hero’s children.
In a thriller, it is customary for the author to put his hero through one horror, one near-fatal catastrophe after the other, flirting with melodrama, like a Saturday afternoon Western. This is especially true here, I think, because “The Epicureans” was serialized in “The Bitter Southerner,” 2017-2018.
A fair question: should one read a novel which details the ceremonies of a taboo subject, especially cannibalism?
The short answer is we have been doing it for millennia. The patricide taboo AND the incest taboo are handled powerfully in Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King.” “Hamlet” is a rich stew of taboos: fratricide, incest as it was then understood, and in the end matricide as well. Greek mythology is full of varieties of cannibalism in which gods eat their own children, usually to prevent them from one day usurping them, or cook and feed them to another, to exact revenge.
Closer to home, Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer with “The Road,” in which desperate people in a sterile America have turned to cannibalism.
For McNair, nothing is out of bounds and enough is never enough, but the energy, the inventiveness, the audacity of this novel are impressive and compelling. Whether this is to your taste or not, it is clear McNair’s talent is powerful and singular.
A word about the physical book. It is so ornate, so heavily adorned, one might compare it to a medieval illuminated manuscript, the kind painstakingly drawn by monks.
First, it has a thick, padded cover, no dust jacket, and the cover is an original painting in a kind of faux blue willow pattern, with the kinds of figures around the edge one might see in the carvings on the front of a cathedral—many monsters and gargoyles, scenes of suffering and torment.
Scattered throughout the novel are about 75 pages, monochromatic, in cobalt blue prints. Some are illustrations in the traditional sense, accompanying a scene, but others are abstract blue images. Many of these could be razored out, framed and hung.
Thirty-four of the pages are black, with white print.
Why? Why not?
The whole production is a kind of art object. There is even a blue silk ribbon for keeping your place, as one might expect in a Bible.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.