“Marvel and A Wonder’—Joe Meno’s latest novel—is an emotionally honest exploration of the human need for connection.
The story centers on widower and Korean War vet, Jim Falls, and his biracial sixteen-year-old grandson, Quentin, who work side by side on a small chicken farm, but could not be more disconnected. Jim can’t seem to see anything of himself—physically or otherwise—in Quentin, who insulates himself with his Walkman. Set on the cusp of the millennium, they’re struggling to keep afloat in the blighted town of Mount Holly, where it’s easier to find fireworks and guns—no permit required—than a job, or any semblance of hope.
A white quarter horse arrives without explanation, and both Jim and Quentin struggle to make meaning of its appearance. Whether it’s a “miracle” or a “mistake,” any character that comes into contact with the mare can feel its frightening, magnificent power, and attributes a supernatural or religious significance to the creature.
When the horse is stolen, the two set out on a journey through the underbelly of the Midwest to retrieve the mare, confronting meth heads, runaways and illegal immigrants, all while navigating escalating acts of violence. Our heroes are an elderly farmer and a teen boy who can barely drive. Our villains commit acts of violence resignedly, almost like it’s inevitable and beyond control.
What I found most striking was Meno’s compassion—even the most despicable sadist has a glimmer of humanity we can empathize with, even he has someone he loves. This leaves us to consider if all these characters are the victims of the same malevolent force—whether it is poverty or capitalism or the American dream itself—that has bewitched and abandoned them.
In the midst of this violence, the grandfather and grandson find each other—they find softness, and elevating love. Old America was machismo and gunfights. New America is vulnerability and the redemptive power of relationships. I loved discovering their evolving connection throughout their journey, and I believe that this novel, while it goes places that are very dark, and very sad, is essentially humanist: heaven is “not a place […] but a person, a fragment of an hour.” (Catlyne Lasser)
“Marvel and a Wonder”
By Joe Meno
Akashic Books, 332 pages, $29.95
September 10 Release Party at The Book Cellar, 4736 North Lincoln, (773) 293-2665, 7pm.