Perhaps my biggest disappointment with Jim Ruland’s debut novel Forest of Fortune is that it is not quite as good it could have been. There was so much promise: stylishly inventive prose that ranged from poetic nightmarish vision to the language of the streets, an evocative setting that offered the opportunity for all sorts of inventive situations, and a set of characters that fairly reeked with possibilities. And I would guess that all that promise needed a much bigger book than Ruland managed to write.
Set in a California Indian casino and environs, the novel follows the fortunes of a trio of unrelated haunted characters — an alcoholic substance abuser, an epileptic Indian casino worker, and a gambling addict — much in the manner of the group hero of naturalistic drama.
Pemberton is the down in his luck alcoholic. He has lost his job in advertising and can’t seem to find anything new. His current girlfriend has thrown him out, and while he still has hopes for the relationship, she is refusing to even talk to him. As a last resort he applies to the Thunderclap Casino for a position in their public relations department. He does get a position, but he is unable to deal with his bottle demons.
Alice is the epileptic Indian woman dominated by past problems with her mother. She is working at the casino as a technician when she has a seizure, and finds herself transferred to a job she detests in guest relations. Much like her namesake, she has an unfortunate habit of wandering off into her own hallucinatory wonderland.
Lupita, the gambler, like all addicts is convinced that she is different. She spends hours growing into days in front of her favorite slot machines in some sense as an escape from her memories of her tempestuous life with her husband, a soldier killed in action. She too seems troubled by hallucinations.
These are three very compelling characters, and that’s the trouble. Each one could use a book of their own. What Ruland needs to do is write one of those eight hundred page blockbusters popular recently, and the book he has written doesn’t come close.
His narrative alternates between the three different characters in snippets rarely longer than four or five pages. Plot driven thriller writers tend to do that kind of thing to get the reader turning pages, but this is not a thriller. This is a novel with literary pretensions. It is less about plot than it is about character and the reader needs characters to be developed at greater length.
There are minor characters, different in each of the three plot lines, but they are rarely depicted in the round, to borrow a term from E. M. Forster. They tend to conveniently appear when needed and conveniently disappear when no longer useful. Pemberton has a biker drug dealing buddy who just happens to be in a bar when Pemberton wanders in. Lupita has a fellow gambling buddy supposedly sick with cancer, who up and disappears without a word. Alice rooms with a cocktail waitress whose boyfriend a rap artist also happens to deal drugs. These, and a raft of others, have enough going for them that the reader needs more.
And by the end when the novel explodes in an almost surrealistic climax and some of the stories begin to coalesce, there is something unsatisfactory about it, not unexciting, but unsatisfactory nonetheless. Jim Ruland can write: all he needs is some fine tuning.