If there’s any question the impact editorial and marketing decisions can have on a novel, Kris Saknussemm’s Enigmatic Pilot: A Tall Tale Too True may erase that. It seems to fall victim to what seems to be a promotional oversight and, perhaps, the editorial process. (Full disclosure: Saknussemm is a “Facebook Friend” of mine. but I know nothing of the decisions made in the publishing process of this book. Likewise, he won’t know the theme and content of this review unless he reads it.)
I was introduced to Saknussemm’s writing five years ago when I reviewed Zanesville, the first book in a proposed series called The Lodemania Testament. Enigmatic Pilot is the new installment in that series but while Saknussemm’s writing remains strong, the book suffers not only from being an installment in a series but from the fact that those unfamiliar with Zanesville may not realize it is part of a series. For some inexplicable reason, nothing in the book and none of the written or online promotional material from Del Rey, Random House’s science fiction and fantasy imprint, tells readers this story of Lloyd Meadhorn Sitturd is about a key character of The Lodemania Testament. As a result, portions of the book that draw out detailed information about Lloyd’s background and influences may strike those who have not read Zanesville as lengthy diversions that slow down the story.
More important, newcomers may have valid complaints that they feel the major, or even minor, plotlines are never completed. For example, the book opens in Dakota Territory in 1869 with a Seventh Calvary lieutenant involved in an almost hallucinatory event. After 15 pages detailing that experience, we never return to the scene or the lieutenant’s story. Instead, the balance of the book follows part of the exodus of the Sitturd family from Zanesville, Ohio, to Texas in 1844, when Lloyd is six years old. Then, the conclusion produces a fascinating plot twist but one that newcomers will feel simply leaves them hanging. While readers may not need a detailed road map, to leave them without any of the background that informs the story or that Enigmatic Pilot is part of a series is to leave them feeling as if they have been on several detours to nowhere. Yet the book design and marketing don’t even hint that Zanesville might give readers insight into some of the symbolism and plot threads in this book. In fact, Saknussemm’s bio on the Del Rey website makes no mention of Enigmatic Pilot even though it does say Zanesville is the first in The Lodemania Testament series. Depending on the editorial process, the possibility also exists that Saknussemm bears a share of the blame as the book itself takes a reverse approach, making no reference to it being part of the series or to Zanesville.
There is no doubt, though, this is part of the series. Zanesville opened with Lloyd’s birth in 1838 and described him as “one of the most neglected geniuses in history.” As a child, Lloyd is whisked up into a tornado in Dustdevil, Tex., only to be returned to the exact spot unharmed some 20 minutes later. In July 1913, after a life as an inventor, businessman, recluse, and cult leader, Lloyd again disappears in another tornado in Dustdevil, this time never to be heard from again. The bulk of the book then focused on a post-apocalyptic America (making it seemingly more appropriate for the Del Rey imprint than Enigmatic Pilot, which remains in pre-Civil War America).
Although Enigmatic Pilot is replete with tornado and whirlwind symbols, they are foreshadowings only readers of Zanesville will grasp. Here, the focus is not on Lloyd’s future but how he embarked for Texas as a child. We learn that Lloyd was not just a neglected genius when he died but a genius from his earliest years. Saknussemm’s eye for history and historical fiction is as keen as his observations on the human condition and his at times trenchant humor. We follow Lloyd’s adventures/quest as he and his parents struggle through what was then part of the western frontier to reach Texas, where Lloyd’s uncle has invited them to live with him on 300 acres of land he has named Dustdevil. As the family travels from Zanesville to Cincinnati to Louisville to St. Louis and St. Joseph, Lloyd becomes friends with and learns from riverboat gamblers, medicine show charlatans, and escaped slaves and encounters primitive androids and perhaps even extraterrestrials. Many of his adventures take on the sense of tall tales in Mark Twain’s Missouri but involving forces not found in Twain tales.