I enter the house like a trespasser. I've become a strange here. It's not longer a home - it's a museum - a monument to whom my grandfather was. Nothing has been touched. It's all exactly how he left it: unopened bills, chipped china soaking in rancid water, the blackened fireplace, and the scent of burned wood and ash. Everything blanketed with a layer of soot, dust, and decay.
I've crossed path with the fiction of Aaron Philip Clark almost by accident. I had requested another title from his publisher and when I received the package, Clark's debut novel THE SCIENCE OF PAUL was wrapped up with it, along with a "thank you" note for investing time in a small press. Call it a happy accident, I suppose, because I found Clark's novel to be smart, lean, mean and understated, thing I love in a book. I didn't think it deserve a sequel at the time. I thought THE SCIENCE OF PAUL could very well exist as a standalone, finite object. Literature keeps you humble like that, though. Whenever you think you know something about an author and his work, he can redefine your perception of him within a few hundred pages. Not only A HEALTHY FEAR OF MAN has the right to exist, but it's also an improvement, an evolution from THE SCIENCE OF PAUL. I didn't expect that and was thoroughly and agreeably surprised for my trouble.
It's not necessary to have read THE SCIENCE OF PAUL, to enjoy A HEALTHY FEAR OF MAN, but it helps. It helps to understand he left Philadelphia barely alive, after spending a couple of years in prison and running into a world that passed him by. It helps to understand he turned away a life with a woman who loved him for the calling of his old ways. In A HEALTHY FEAR OF MAN, Paul has reached the North Carolina he was longing for so desperately. He has taken refuge in his deceased grandfather's decaying farmhouse and takes a quiet pleasure in living like a caveman, fishing from his pond and eating berries. But it's not because he ran away from the evils of mankind that they are not everywhere. They will find Paul, confront him and force him to understand better what kind of man he really is.
You've probably heard the term "existential noir" before. I'm not sure why people say that. The term goes back to Albert Camus' immortal novel THE STRANGER. It's often used incorrectly by pretentious authors to talk about their work when it doesn't exactly respects the classic tropes of the genre. The Paul Little books are bone fide existential noir. They examine human nature through the evolution of its protagonist in a violent world. While THE SCIENCE OF PAUL established who Paul wasn't anymore, A HEALTHY FEAR OF MAN confronts him to some of the most infuriating forms of injustice and will reveal him to himself. It's as dark as it gets for a novel, yet there is something beautiful that happens within Paul as he makes the conscious decision to stand tall in adversity. It's like a rebirth.
"See that's the trouble with the dead."
"They have the living that misses them. No matter how much of a bastard they were when they were breathing, somebody is always missing them when they're gone and the Kincaids are just looking to make it right."
Not every genre author gives close attention to his prose, but Aaron Philip Clark definitely does. It has that rare gift of triggering the reader's awareness through a latent sense of emergency buried in between the words. Long-time readers know the prose can lock you out of a book or just make you drift off if not sturdy enough. I found myself tied to A HEALTHY FEAR OF MAN for much longer sittings that I usually do when reading, which caused me to finish the book a lot sooner than I would have liked. Clark's prose highlight the self-doubt, the fears and everything subtle in the thought process of Paul Little, which made him so much more complex and endearing. Paul is not a hero, but he is a good man looking to break free from the prison of his fears and this is something you can understand between the words, thanks to the thorough, yet seamless prose of Aaron Philip Clark.
To be fair, A HEALTHY FEAR OF MAN could have used half-points in my scoring system. It's a remarkable work of fiction, yet it's not perfect. It's going back into the beaten path of the genre at times and incorporates useless variables in an attempt to layer up the plot. It's very short so I understand the length concerns, but I thought the drug subplot was a tad cliché and under-researched. It could had worked in a work of lesser ambitions, but not next to Paul Little's existential becoming. Nonetheless, it doesn't deter much from the overall beauty of this novel. A HEALTHY FEAR OF MAN is terrific. The Paul Little novels are unique and humane, yet not sentimental. They explore what it is to remain human in extreme adversity. Loved the first one, but consider me a fan now.
FOUR STARS *
* It would have been 4.5 stars if I had such thing.
I'm a pop culture blogger and author living in Montreal, Canada with my better half Josie and my dog Scarlett. I am a proud member of author collective Zelmer Pulp and have about a dozen of short stories published to my resume.