Stride Magazine -



Lizard Dreaming of Birds
by John Gist
High Sierra Books, ISBN: 0-9715482-4-2, $24.95

‘Is it too much to suggest that we may recognize... the beauty and fittingness of an environment created by an assembly of creatures?’
­ James Lovelock Gaia

To label John Gist’s latest offering a ‘horror novel’ would be far too simplistic. His chronicle of half-life and sudden death in the American West is disturbing and occasionally gruesome, but it is also starkly beautiful in places ­ especially in its description of the natural world ­ and would be all but impossible to pigeonhole under any one particular genre.

Gist is a child of Wyoming ­ that enormous plateau where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains ­ and has clearly been influenced by the southern Gothic tradition that so typically focuses on the decaying south and its damned populace. All the elements are there in his work: the contradictions of faith and violence, the eccentric characters and the biblical imagery. However, there is also a strong element of dissent in Lizard Dreaming of Birds
, and a distinct sense that something far more disturbing than mere drink, drugs and dust is dragging these people down to the level of the scorpions and snakes.

Jubal Siner, the remote and coldly angry protagonist of this surreal novel, has a strong instinct for survival. He prowls the peripheries of his absurd world, attempting to make sense of its crass visage and chilly heart, haunted by childhood memories of a horned god or ‘elk-ma’n’. He has become embroiled with a group of young people in Seattle who, as individuals, are each seeking their own brand of salvation. The anchor of this group is Jesse, a tarot wielding, ostensibly homophobic prophet, who shares his spiritual views and women with the cynical Jubal, while attempting to switch him on to God.

The two men share a house, which becomes a magnet for every druggy, drop-out and social misfit in town, while Stephen, a sycophantic computer geek, pays the rent. They are a modern day Dionysus and Orpheus (to Gist’s Homer); together they have founded a mystery cult in their small corner of Washington state and their lives have become a shamanistic tale of orgiastic rites, dismemberment and renewal. But Jubal belongs to the mountains, and Jesse is damned from the moment they meet and he ‘gets religion’. The book opens with a traumatic incident that scatters the central characters and compels them to seek inner redemption while struggling to make sense of all that has happened to them since Siner entered their lives.

Gist never shies away from the actions of his characters in this sparely poetic novel. He explores deceit and hypocrisy, sex and religion, conveying ideas by means of veiled symbolism and brooding imagery. We drift in and out of the multiple narrators’ actions and memories, as they wander, Kerouac-like through the American West.

Jubal knows nothing of moral consequences, only that he feels, in some way, impelled to merge with the natural rhythms of the earth; and Gist doesn’t attempt to elucidate or enlighten ­ the reader is left to interpret and decipher, to find meaning in this outlandish and unforgiving world. Or alternatively, concur with Lorelei ­ Jesse’s most fervent disciple ­ in her belief that, ‘when things don’t make sense, they’re not supposed to’.

Gist’s novel questions our ever more estranged ‘western’ conception of nature and expresses the belief that all creatures are fundamentally dependent on each other. His characters are being challenged, tested to see if they are still able to hear and obey the heartbeats of the Earth itself. We should read Lizard Dreaming of Birds
as a warning: a ‘Beware Danger Ahead!’ signpost on the edge of the dusty highway.

                  © Paula Bardell

Paula is a freelance writer who has contributed articles, reviews and essays to numerous publications on subjects such as literature, travel, culture, history and humanitarian issues. She lives in North Wales, is a staff writer for Apsaras Review
and the editor of two popular online guides.