It may be called "twisted," but it's anything but. Don't expect a horror show. This ingeniously constructed novel by Kent Meyers is an elegant deconstruction of a seemingly simple town nestled along a freeway in South Dakota. No one would ever notice the little rancher burg if it hadn't been the home of a victim of a recent murder. Here's where the sicko part makes its brief appearance: the murderer prowls the freeway looking for anorexic girls to kill, and found one named Hayley Jo Zimmerman in Twisted Tree, S.D.
For the rest of the book until the ending, the murder steps out of the picture, and author Meyers proceeds to probe the nature of the town in a series of disconcerting yet enlightening short stories. Some stories focus on people who knew Hayley Jo, some ever so slightly, some only to brush against her at the grocery store. But they have other tales to tell: stories of lost opportunities in their youth, tales of cruel parents now left to their care, a dreamy man's vision of buffalo that save his life but can't save his foundering marriage. The stories make some sort of surface sense—everyone knew Hayley Jo—in the beginning, but soon, even that kinship disappears. Meyers is after something much deeper.
This is where less than profound thinkers begin to complain. Amazon's reviews are full of readers carping about the fact that "this is just a book of short stories." One even asks "Is this even a book?" The careful reader can only suggest that the impatient ones only look beyond the obvious. Just as the efficient killer is going about his nasty business, Meyers is peeling back layers of myth and superficiality that surround the town. He focuses on the agony of one family, the Valens, who lived in total madness in Twisted Tree, passing their insanity down to a man named Shane, who sold off part of the property to Hayley Jo's father. Shane is crazy as a loon by any standard, but story by story, the reader finds out just how, well, twisted this man really is. Writing to his dead mother, he creates a whole world for himself that other people seem to believe. Living on poached animals and guarded by the ghosts he projects, he wards off everyone, until the sheriff finally finds out the unimaginable, crazy truth.
That truth is Twisted Tree's truth. Those bones are the bones of the town, founded on murder and nightmares and horrific thinking. When anyone asks "how could Hayley Jo have done that to herself?" about her anorexia, it's a silly question. She was only responding to the heartbeat of the land her father bought. Once she was a rodeo rider, dodging barrels on her horse, winning ribbons, lithe and light as a feather. Then, she became fixed and loaded down by the weight of Twisted Tree and began to wither away. Meyers doesn't come out and explain it, but it's all there in the tales.
In an interesting symbolic gesture, Meyers has Hayley Jo's father raising a herd of buffalo. The buffalo also range freely over the Valen property, and figure in several other stories as well. In each they are mute commentators on the human foibles, like a sad Greek chorus, nature commenting on how sick humanity has allowed itself to become.
The pure artistry of this book is something surprisingly rare. Most linked short stories have obvious plot devices that keep them bundled together or even characters who almost step from one story into the next. Meyers not only keeps each story cleanly divided from the other, but only allows echoes of the others to reverberate. Yet each story fits cleanly next to each each other as if he has taken an scalpel and sliced each one intricately, and placed it precisely where it must go. For someone to miss this is probably inevitable in our age of quick fixes and dumbed-down plots. However, seeing work like this done to such a high degree of elegance gives one hope for the future of fiction.
Whether the murder is solved becomes beside the point (although it is). Meyers sums up the soul of a town in 288 pages and does it with grace.
The Society of Midland Authors honored Meyers, of Spearfish, S.D., with the Best Fiction of 2009 award for Twisted Tree May 11 in Chicago.