Book Sountracking: Fever Chart

by Andrew Patterson

A few months ago, I sent an e-mail to a friend of mine with a request for new literature. I tend to lean more towards the ‘classics’ (for me, that means early 20th century American novels and late 19th century Russian novels), and I wanted something fresh and exciting; something that I could really chew on culturally. My friend sent me back a list of about 25 books to read from the 21st century. The first one I came across was Fever Chart.

It’s a kaleidoscopic novel told from the perspective of Jerome Coe, a man with a dazed disposition and a mutilated hand who’s spent the entirety of his life in and out of orphanages, mental health wards and hospitals. When the woman with whom he’s infatuated dies suddenly, he escapes his current compound and heads south to New Orleans, somewhat accidentally. In a series of strange sexual advances, bloody hands and heads, exploding cupboards, Danish tourists, thrift shops, penny collections, World Famous Grilled Cheese Sandwiches and elusive love, Coe ambles in and out of his own mind and the hearts of strangers (who also all seem to be fucked up in their own rite).

With the possible exception of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Fever Chart is the most lysergic novel I’ve ever read. It spews colours and textures and ideas, hemorrhages the gritty details of consumer America and smacks your brain with crisp ironies, making you giggle all the while. It is darkly comic; Coe’s skewed visions can be absurdly funny while his circumstantial isolation can be quite affecting.

Most nights, I’ve been sitting in my armchair flipping pages, listening to the mercurial sounds of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica and the unhinged bleating of Ornette Coleman’s Change Of The Century:

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An excerpt from the novel:

On an unnaturally hot day near Halloween, almost a year after my bolt from the hospital, I filled a couple of paper bags with a bunch of K.L. Forsythe books and other twice- and thrice-read romances, and then hiked over to a thrift store a few blocks down from my apartment, in order to leave the books as a donation, and to do a little shopping.

The Poke Around Thrift Acre had clearly acquired a first-rate lot– the place was in high entropy. But the initial wave of thrift store hawks was long gone, and the only ones left were treasureless zombies crawling through the paperbacks and dirty sneakers and bags of AC adaptors and Beta workout tapes scattered everywhere. Fussbudget toddlers imprisoned in shopping carts wailed in torment while mothers and big sisters scavenged the fallout. There was an occasional exclamation of victory when someone found an overlooked Marmaduke mug or a retro T-shirt without sweat stains or blood on it. There appeared to be zero Halloween-related objects remaining.

But I wasn’t there for a costume. I was there for pants– I’d scorched the lap of my work jeans with spilled solder– and a Crock pot. I’d decided that it would be nice, for a change, to come home to stew or whatever Crock-Pots made during the day while you were at work, instead of steak sandwiches.

The selection of pants available at the Poke Round for an individual of my size (32-32) was exactly the same as it had always been; viz. meager. If any fresh, exciting pants had come in earlier in the day, they were walking around on new owners now.

On the bottom shelf of the Crock-Pot display was an especially antique example with wood paneling and dials like a prewar radio. It had a film of antique stew inside, but it was reasonably priced (fifteen cents) and came with its original box. I claimed the pot and its packaging, and went up to the register.

The Poke Round clerk, a small, elderly woman with a taut forehead, had never like me for some reason (maybe she saw me eyeing her enviably meaty metacarpals), and to prove that today was no different, she snarled at me like a miniature tapir. Then she rang me up.

I became aware of a presence behind me. It was a warm and protective presence; a heavy wool blanket. It was quiet and near. I got lost in it for a moment. The I realized the tapir lady was malocchioing me.

“Some. Thing. Else?” she said.

I stepped to the side to make room for the warm, protective customer. It was a she, and she was wearing large, lozenge-shaped sunglasses. A fluorescent orange price tag was stuck to one lens. She placed a paperback– something called The Pnume– on the glass counter. She smiled at me. Weird, goosey embarrassment, obviously a cousin to shame, billowed around me. I delivered a word I intended to be heard as Hi, but for some reason it came out as a creepy, barely audible iyee. It had probably looked to her like I’d simply opened and closed my mouth, like a lungfish.

Then, from above her mouth a wide red ribbon began to unroll. It followed the contours of her lips, and of her tongue, which had reflexively darted out to taste it. A thick, lush ribbon; shiny, without a trace of weave. The ribbon paused at her chin, then fell heavily. I rushed forward with my hands and cupped and caught the ribbon in midstream. She jumped back and some of the blood splashed onto her white T-shirt. It continued to pour from both nostrils, bright cadmium red. In an instant my cupped hands filled with several ounces of her blood. On the glass counter streaks and pools and spatters glowed around their edges from the fluorescent light below. A fan of blood spread out onto the cover of The Pnume. Another soaked a knee of my solder-scorched jeans.

The tapir lady sprang into action. Almost instantly, she had an entire roll of paper towels tucked under the girl’s nose, and was leading her away to the back of the store.

I left, backing out through the glass door, careful not to drop her blood.

I stood on the corner. Sleepy locals paused to grimace. A tourist mule-cart squiring twin girls and an elderly couple also stopped. The mule-cart driver pointed me out as an example of the colourful surprises in wait around every corner in the city. The day was still hot.

her blood darkened. It began to leak through the gap where my pinkie would have been. A green, metallic fly landed on my thumb. I started to run, carrying her blood like an egg on a spoon. I ran through a parking lot, down a long street with a cat under every parked car, then up old stone steps and over a levee, and down to the mud and trash that was the bank of the Mississippi . I stood in the water for a moment, then carefully let her blood run into the divine river.

Who was that woman? I couldn’t even remember what she looked like– the only visual I could bring up was an edgeless field of red, a bright carmine abstract of that bizarre, erotic cataract.

I took my jeans off when I got home. her blood had soaked through the denim– the skin of my knee had accepted a kind of smeared transfer, which after a moment’s audit I realized resembled a kind of rust-toned photo-negative of a famous police sketch: a mustachioed, curly-haired man wearing sunglasses and a hood sweatshirt. The Unibomber.

I did not resist a sudden urge to lick my knee; to lick him; lick her. The blood silhouette seemed vital and confident. Or it at least represented vitality and confidence– two of the principal groceries, I realized, of sex appeal. There had always been something sexy about the Unibomber. There had always been something sexy about blood.

It occurred to me that this was the first time since I’d begun my new, other-side-of-town life that I felt safely, permissibly lustful. Alive. Maybe live was a better word, as in Live Nude Girls. As perilous as it might be, I wanted it. What it? Actual sex? No– it had been years; I wouldn’t know how to properly comport. It was the taste I wanted, the proof that it was still there. A briny, motile, riskless, doctor-free, up-close look. I wanted to be in the lap of the redding heat of it.

I’d just poke a periscope out of the tumulus and take a look around. I’d be careful.

“I’ll be careful,” I told the dried black blood of my nosebleed ghost.

The next day I headed back to the Poke Round.

* * *

While ‘researching’ for this post I found two great articles in which author Bill Cotter talks about his personal connections to the music surrounding this novel.

Here and Here.