Nick Cave is much better known as a musician than as a writer1; few even realize that he wrote the screenplay for the fabulous movie The Proposition, especially since so much attention is payed to his equally-wonderful work on its soundtrack.
But long, long ago (OK, only 1989), Cave penned his debut novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, whose content will not surprise you if you are familiar with Cave’s lyrics.
Those familiar with the “Southern Gothic” style of writing popularized by the likes of Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner will be right at home with Cave’s novel, though admittedly I think that latter is far darker and more violent. Cave’s stylistic borrowings from Faulker are even more self-evident, wherein a character’s internal narration is beautiful prosody, but inevitably contrasted against that same character’s simplistic dialogue. Euchrid Eucrow, the main character—I hesitate to call him a protagonist—is a mute, born the son of a drunk, belligerent mother and a perverse, violent father in some generically-southern valley populated with fanatically religious Ukulites. The novel belies a sense realism immediately when Eucrid as Narrator speaks from inside the womb of the death of his twin bother. This sense of surrealism is pervasive; though traditionally Southern Gothic in the sense that Cave uses more realistic archetypes, there’s an ecstatic sort of fantasy that is layered over everything.
An outcast in a valley already full of outcasts, Euchrid’s hatred for the land’s inhabitants grows as he does, hitting a critical juncture when he witnesses the murder-by-mob of the lavender-scented prostitute, Cosey Mo. His spiral into violent delirium, matched almost blow-for-blow by the self-destructive nature of the valley’s rough inhabitants, forms the crux of the plot, finally realized (sort of) in a(nother) terrible act of violence. In this way, it reminds me very much of Egolf’s Lord of the Barnyard, but with considerably more feverish Gospel-quoting and maniacal prosody. Consider this passage, chosen at random:
Ah remember a time of eudaemonia. A time when skies were azure blue and streaked with veils of cirrus — or else they carried the hull of a cotton-coloured cumulus across their infinite waters. A time when the shrill song of the cicada filled the vale and the cedar’s low sough mingled with the hush and mutter of the cane crop’s relentless unnersong. A time filled with the scent of pine and orange flowers. When jack-o’-lanterns and will-o’-the-wisps shone in the brakes and bracken. When the humming breath of summer grazed the cheek of shallow waters, sending bulrushes all a-reeling. Ah remember a time when years were quartered in seasons, when day became night. A time of dusks and dawns and suns and moons. When all the valley green worked toward the ingathering, the munificent harvest and the rewards of honest toil, of good health, of well-being, of Christian charity, of brotherly love and the love of God, all beneath the boon of a golden sun. AH remember a time when there was peace in the valley.
But not for me. Never was there peace in the valley for me.
That’s one of the brighter passages; rest assured the rest is mired in a fanatical despair and violence, perhaps one of the more damning indictments of its subjects that I’ve seen. Its entire elaborate rhetorical life seems intended to provoke foreboding—a thousand needle pricks in preparation for vivisection.
If you are adventurous enough to dare Cave’s rather clotted, manic prose, then I think you will find And the Ass Saw the Angel a rewarding read. It’s not rife with subtext—I don’t think anything in it serves as a metaphor or synecdoche, nor does it ultimately explain something difficult or complicated. Much contrary to the book’s self-description—which mentions something about Euchrid’s “mad, angelic vision… ultimately redeem[ing] the town and its people”—I think And the Ass Saw the Angel is a terrifying study in the frailty of humanity, in the vein of Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and the very antithesis of the kind of uplifting or meaningful tragedy that Edith Hamilton liked to posit. If there’s a meaningful tragedy to be found in Cave’s novel, I have yet to discover it, but it was a wild ride nonetheless.
- Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus ranks among my favorite albums[↩]