Ponckhockie Union by Brent Robison

Ponckhockie Union (Recital Publishing, 208 pages) is a novel for the connoisseur of the uncanny. The story is about Ben Rose, a documentary filmmaker, who stumbles into a vortex of metaphysical uncertainties when trying to make a film about a Revolutionary War historical site. He is estranged from his wife, doubtful about his future prospects, and vulnerable to having his bedrock assumptions upended. The more Ben grasps, the less stable his life is. The tipping point in the narrative comes when Ben encounters – or encounters again – a lying sociopath who may or may not be an assassin and may or may not get murdered. Ben is held hostage in a cellar for two weeks before escaping, realizing only too late that the way out had been available all along.

I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag with too much detail, but the narrative seesawing is on par with Kafka or Borges. Once certainty is asserted, it is as quickly diminished. Add to that a dollop of paranoia a la Philip K. Dick, and you get the drift. If there is a cat to be let out of the bag, it is Schroedinger’s.

The overall atmosphere is of a thriller. An intense thriller. The notes of ominous transformations are quietly sounded in the introduction of the sociopath calling himself Les Spanda:

He gave me a wide grin and reached out a broad meaty hand. As I shook it, a vague sensation began to dawn in me that I had met this man before. I couldn’t grasp any specific memory, so I just thanked him, and walked back to my car.

Later, we learn that “spanda” is a Sanskrit word meaning divine vibration or pulse inseparable from being, a cosmic expansion, and contraction. Breathe in. Breathe out. Now hold your breath, and keep holding, holding, holding. That’s the mood Robison seems to be after.

The destabilizing encounter with Spanda leads Ben to ruminate on the human condition:

Each of us walks through life as if through a tunnel. I’m in my tunnel, you’re in yours. When my wife leaves for work in the morning, I have no idea what is happening to her until her tunnel intersects mine again at the end of the day. Apparently, there are people with clairvoyant skills who can see into other people’s tunnels, but that’s not a talent I have. I’ve always wished I could know what someone else is experiencing at any given moment, to compare it with my own stream of experiences, like cross-cutting between parallel storylines in a movie. To be less separate…less alone, you might say.

Loneliness. Isolation. A telling reason to want to tap into the thoughts of others, as if there would necessarily be more comfort in inhabiting a fellow human’s brain. Most important, this excerpt gives a good sense of the grace of the author’s prose.

Robison is a vigorous proponent of genre-busting. There’s plenty of good-humored observation in Ponckhockie Union but the reader is never off the hook when it comes to ontological doubt or having the magic carpet pulled out from under her. Robison is careful to construct a gentle-hearted protagonist in Ben Rose, a middle-aged man with hippy-ish tendencies and liberal mistrust of certainty that extends even to its own roots. Yet the narrative is designed to induce aches of injustice and absurdity that don’t necessarily engender sympathy for the hero. Many of Ben’s torments are maddeningly self-inflicted.

Ponckhockie Union is not a novel that will appeal to readers who like to be spoon-fed. The story will take brainwork, but the writing is true. I was particularly impressed with the construction of the scenes and geeked out at all the well-laid-down details that evolved into major narrative building blocks. Robison eschews dialogue for memoir-like discursiveness, a model that permits the doubt of introspection to incubate; and the fluid temporal sequence is a serious accomplishment given the various narrative jumps. Something coheres and the warring narrative threads trigger a different kind of energy in the story when Spanda is introduced. The reader gets the thriller archetypes to latch onto—yet they are gently thwarted, too. The stakes go up, and up.

It would be easy enough to suppose such an unconventional work puts Robison out on a genre ledge by himself. That’s kind of true. Yet I think Ponckhockie Union would be comfortable grouped in an emerging breed of fiction that straddles many trade boundaries, between horror, thriller, memoir, philosophical reflection, comedy, and fantasy. With, of course, a dash of just about any other genre the author fancies. Anything goes as long as the gambit can be sustained and the reader is willing to go along with it. Proposing this writing composes a new “genre” would be unfair to the intentions of most of these authors who like Robison adamantly resist market orthodoxy. The only indispensable element is that the work must be literary—relentlessly, beautifully literary.

This breed is finding a home in small, upstart presses. It pokes a head up occasionally in the works of mainstream writers such as George Saunders, Coleman Whitehead, and Jennifer Egan. But the stuff I am talking about is eerier and more intimate, less likely to let the reader shrink back from a challenge. These writers believe in the power of narrative to enchant, not just to vex or disarm. They believe in redemption. But of what kind when the concept of redemption seems foreclosed on? It feels like the answer is still being worked out—but I want to stick around for the ride.

Ponckhockie Union is in the vanguard of this strange breed.  It is a literary thriller that declines to placate a reader with genre guardrails; it is a metaphysical rumination that won’t settle for mystical satiety. Brace yourself. The story is intense, and the writing is terrific.

Vic Peterson, author of The Berserkers, 2022.

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