My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Dream of Saint Ursula: A Mystery in the Virgin Islands (2014) by Kenneth Butcher takes its title from the painting by Vittore Carpaccio completed in 1495.
Much like Carpaccio in the series of nine paintings creating “Stories from the Life of St Ursula,” Butcher is also able to extract details and symbols from a scene by unifying multiple perceptions from numerous characters throughout a fluent narrative that delights and entertains steadily throughout the 261-page book.
The story and its style found in The Dream of Saint Ursula quickly become reflective of Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. and Pynchon’s ability to take dense, complex materials (albeit often loosely and incredibly interconnected) and include in his books history, music, and science.
In the prologue, Butcher dangles the reader on the edge of serious-absurdity while keeping true to the plot centered on a painter called Richard Richard (surname pronounced “Re-shard” for good measure):
“In the kitchen he found that his roommate’s pet marmoset had left a pile of feces on the kitchen counter next to a packet of travel brochures for the Virgin Islands…
“Moreover, the pile was shaped roughly like a ziggurat. How was that even possible? He reflected on the demonic face of the creature with a mixture of interest and loathing. Could there be something more sinister at work behind those prurient eyes than mere animal instinct…
“He glanced quickly around the room to make sure that the marmoset was not concealing himself, ready to pounce and bite as he so often did…
“It was hard to say where the usual monkey business stopped and its drug-induced psychosis began” (p 7).
The marmoset, one of several memorable characters in the book, makes many more humorous appearances, and one of the best is in Chapter 8 called “Reduction of Image” as Butcher continues his clever ability to weave ad absurdum the believable, the everyday, and almost plausible as Charles Colebrook attends an art exhibit showcasing work by Richard “Re-shard” in the Virgin Islands:
“The next morning Charles Colebrook put a hand on Sophie’s waist to guide her out of the sunshine and into a low building next to the main exhibition hall. He was thinking how lovely she looked in the light cotton dress and sandals. She had a glow about her. His brother, Xavier, walked just in front of them.
“As they went down the hall the decibel level increased. It was that mixture of electronic music and human voices that he associated with cocktail parties, play intermissions and the opening of art exhibits…
“The title of the exhibit, according to the pamphlet handed out by a girl with purple hair, was Up Inside My World. The photo on the front of the pamphlet was an extreme close up of the face of a ventriloquist’s dummy. Charles always found ventriloquist dummies revolting because of their exaggerated features and especially because of the two lines descending from the corners of the mouth which allowed for the anticipation of the puppet’s jaw.
“Upon entering the hall the first thing confronting the visitor was the same dummy sitting on a very high chair. The dummy’s grotesquely thin legs were crossed, his right hand raised with the middle finger held up in the familiar salute of insolence…
“The painting that had impressed them, entitled Say Hello to My Little Friend, was an acrylic rendering of a marmoset doing cocaine. In the painting the small primate hunched on a coffee table in front of a pile of white powder, some of which it had been divided into lines. The animal clasped a razor blade in its little hand. Its head was tilted back, its snout was dusted with powder, and its gaping mouth exposed two needle-like lower incisors” (pgs 65-67).
With clarity and precision, Butcher also delights the reader when he captures the Virgin Islands, the primary setting for the mystery:
“Charlotte Amalie, the biggest city on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, is centered on St. Thomas Harbor…
“It was on the top floor of one of these buildings well above the commercial district that Lieutenant Esteban sat on the terrace of the apartment that he called home, having some breakfast and coffee in the cool of the morning…
“This was Esteban’s idea of luxury; taking a little time with his breakfast early in the morning. The air was still cool. There was even a little breeze coming in over the harbor which brought cooking and baking smells up from the restaurants and bakeries below him. His little table was in the shade…
“From his balcony Esteban could see the ferry boats pull in and out of their landing area and he knew their movements well enough to tell who was at the helm of these venerable old sea horses. It might be some subtle movement in bringing the boat around in a turn or the angle and speed with which he approached the dock. It was a little hard to define, but there it was, like a person’s handwriting or the sound of his voice, a little bit different and distinctive for each pilot” (pgs 53-55).
In addition to the fun, summery scenes in the Virgin Islands, one of Butcher’s greatest strengths is his ability to weave among the numerous characters easily and without confusion, making these larger-than-life characters memorable in the process. A major player in the mystery, “The Termite” and his scenes are often redolent of Joseph Heller in his novel Catch–22 (1961); both writers merge and mix the intelligent with profane absurdity:
“Herman Kessel, the man Mia called The Termite, loved those little orange cheese crackers. It was not unusual for him to consume a dozen of the small cellophane packages of them in a day. Often several packages were eaten in quick succession like a man chain smoking cigarettes, lighting the next one from the last as it were.
“In his pocket he carried a small silver handled pocketknife with which he would slice open the packets with a practiced movement that many found vaguely prurient. The saltiness and the dry texture of the crackers required that he drink some beverage between bites. Root beer was his favorite and he preferred to drink it from aluminum cans. However, there was a problem with this pairing. The ratio of crackers in a packet to root beer in a can was slightly off” (p 118).
One side amusement to Butcher and The Dream of Saint Ursula is to see how characters relate to other characters—like how Herman “The Termite” Kessel could be representative of the marmoset, both having that “prurient” look (“prurient” meaning: “having or encouraging an excessive interest in sexual matters, especially the sexual activity of others”) and what this means to the story’s plot as a whole.
As the mystery unfolds a bigger plot revealing a threat to national security and sovereignty, the fun begins in examining the tidbits of facts and clues Butcher leaves for the reader to follow to the end.
In The Dream of Saint Ursula, the symbols and themes are abundant, and overly fun to find in this witty summer read. Butcher does a masterful job resolving the mystery that propels the story forward into a climatic conclusion that was out there in the open for all to see. Overall: a fun, engaging read.
Keep reading and smiling…
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can also follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 400,000+ followers