Marvel and a Wonder (Akashic) is not the first novel I’ve read that is either directly or indirectly about American masculinity in crisis, nor will it be the last, but it’s the only one I’ve genuinely enjoyed. It’s a notable accomplishment: a melancholy, symbol-laden meditation on the dying American heartland that I stayed up into the small hours to finish.
This is the fifth novel by Joe Meno, a Chicago writer and professor in the creative writing department at Columbia, and by far his most ambitious. It centers on 71-year-old Jim Falls, a widower, Korean War veteran, and farmer in rural Indiana who struggles to connect with his 16-year-old grandson Quentin after the boy’s mother disappears.
The masculinity crisis, as we’ve come to call it, is the idea that the old school American man, on whose work and ambitions the country was built, is now being asked to make room at the top of the food chain for women and minorities, or to dismantle the food chain altogether. And while this is undoubtedly progress, where does it leave the American man once we’ve all started opening our own jars, metaphorically speaking?
Jim Falls, for example, seems stuck in the only role he’s ever been expected to play, but it’s one no one seems to want or need. He’s running the family farm in the town in which he was raised, both of which are failing. When he and Quentin are out driving in his pick-up and he puts country music on the radio, Quentin puts on headphones to listen to rap. He’s a member of a Masonic lodge that has decided to shut down because all their members are dying and no one new is joining. (I grew up in the region of Indiana depicted in this book, and one of my favorite details, because of the instant shock of recognition it gave me, is that the four remaining Masons are all named Jim.) He tries to help a neighbor catch a coyote that’s been on her property and kills her cat instead.
There’s also racism. No one knows who Quentin’s father was, but they know he wasn’t white. Quentin’s “a halfie, or a mulatto, or what the grandfather had sometimes been known to call a mix-breed, though that wasn’t the right word either.” Being the only nonwhite kid in a small Indiana town is not easy for him. It’s also complicated for Jim, who, unbeknownst to Quentin, was dishonorably discharged from the army for assaulting a black soldier. It’s hard not to see the fact that a white, historically racist farmer is passing on his family name and crumbling legacy to a biracial teenager that he doesn’t understand as a metaphor for everything happening to the midwest right now, but like I said, it’s a symbol-laden book, and they just keep coming.
One day a truck pulls into the farm and delivers a beautiful white quarter horse. The paperwork shows that the horse has legally been given to Jim, but both the sender and the reason are a mystery. The horse is beautiful and fast, and Jim and Quentin love it. But almost inevitably, since it’s the only beautiful thing in town and in their lives, it’s quickly stolen from them, and Jim and Quentin set out to get it back.
Once they’re on the road, the book expands to include lots of other things that are depressing. The people who took the horse, and the people they come in contact with on the run with it, are all fresh examples of the way the American dream can fail a person. But as we follow the growing cast of characters through the shitty motels, casinos, strip clubs, bus stations, and fast food chains of the midwest, one thing remains constant to all of them: putting your hand on a horse’s neck stirs something inside you that will always believe that your life can mean something.
The book draws comparisons to William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, and Toni Morrison. It’s at once a story about two people and an exploration of the past, present, and future of the country. The horse, let’s be honest, is the American Dream, and a bunch of failures chase it around the midwest in pick-up trucks. It should absolutely collapse under the weight of its own symbolism, but it doesn’t.
As the fate of the horse, of Jim Falls, of Quentin—of America!—becomes more perilous, the book picks up speed. The story is operating on different levels—as a family story, an epic, and in the end a page-turner—but they remain skillfully balanced. Perhaps Meno had his hand on a horse’s neck while he was writing it.
In an author’s statement, Meno wrote that this book is in response to what he sees as “the end of one kind of America and the beginning of another.” Jim Falls is a dying breed, and Marvel and a Wonder explores the good and the bad of what we’ll lose when that breed dies.