Book Review

And the Ass Saw the Angel

Nick Cave

Rollins 2.13.61, Reprint 2003, ISBN 1-880985-72-1; 301 Pages, Paperback $15.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by LJ Lindhurst

Nick Cave enjoys a love-hate relationship with a bona fide, fire-and-brimstone Old Testament God; in his music, he praises God, yet twists like a broken marionette under God’s wrath. Nick Cave’s God is not ambivalent, nor is he kind. This is a God who is waiting around the corner to trip you, who delights in his cruel plan, and whose meddling with justice and revenge cannot be fathomed by a mere mortal man. Or to quote from Cave’s song, “Red Right Hand”: “You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan.”
Largely overlooked by the mainstream, and too quickly dismissed as “goth” by inattentive critics, Cave’s work has rarely received the attention it deserves. Like Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave is a brilliant but eccentric original, his music earning him a devoted cult following and credibility among fellow artists, from singers such as Ute Lemper to filmmaker Wim Wenders. From his work with his bands The Birthday Party (in the 1980s) and The Bad Seeds (currently), Cave has developed a diverse style that ranges from raging punk-rock to the most beautiful, pared-down ballads. His lyrics, which are always sophisticated and finely crafted, draw their listener into a unique world populated by the disenfranchised, where God’s presence is powerfully felt in equal parts glory and misery. Murderers, hookers, vengeful lovers, carnival freaks, the insane; his characters stagger along the fringes of civilized society, drunk and dirty and alone. Above them all hovers Mr. Cave himself, a comically ponderous but sympathetic narrator, just as comfortable describing the most horrific barroom massacre as tossing off a quote by Kant.
Nick Cave’s first foray into the world of fiction, his 1989 novel And The Ass Saw The Angel (republished this year by Henry Rollins’ 2.13.61) reads like a logical extension of the dark world his music has already created. Unencumbered by the limitations of the six-minute rock song format, Cave is finally off his leash. Thoroughly exploring the histories and damaged psyches of his characters, he spins a rich, highly nuanced tale of small-minded religious hypocrisy coming into violent confrontation with one man’s rapidly spiraling insanity – the results of a catastrophic plan indeed.
A chronicle of thirty-odd years in the Southern town of Ukulore Valley, most of the novel is told through the eyes of a crazed hillbilly named Euchrid Euchrow, who spends the course of the book slowly sinking to his death in a pit of quickmud. Euchrid is a cast-off, a human being with no rights, no respect, no love, and – quite literally – no voice. It’s a hard, uncharitable world he lives in, and no one is kind to anyone, least of all to the “hill trash” living in shacks on the edge of town. Mute from birth, Euchrid narrates his tale through a highly personal language, a mixture of old-fashioned country vernacular and formal Bible-speak. Or, as Cave explains, a “kind of a hyper-poetic thought-speak, not meant to be spoken – a mongrel language that was part-Biblical, part-Deep South dialect, part-gutter slang, at times obscenely reverent and at others reverently obscene.”
Euchrid’s muteness is more than a source of frustration; as Cave himself has suggested, his inability to communicate is what ultimately drives Euchrid insane. Traumatized by his brutal surroundings, and unable to express himself to others, Euchrid is forced to cobble together an inner mythology from bits of Biblical lore, twisted out of shape to meet the needs of his nightmarish existence. He speaks to us from this very private world, inhabited by magical creatures and illuminated by angelic revelations. From the earliest pages of the book, we are brought full-on into Euchrid’s surreal consciousness; as newborn infants lying in separate peach crates marked “#1” and “#2,” Euchrid and his dying brother converse:

…with one grub-sized knuckle ah knocked out a message, using a system of coded raps, taps and gaps that mah brother and ah had devised while adrift in the purling fremitus of the womb.

Do-Not-Forget-Your-Brother-Reply

But mah brother did not. Ah tapped out a second time, adding a Please to the end, but again he did not. Please. Undaunted, ah told him what Life was like, and inquired about any special powers he may have developed in Death. Mah signals became urgent and disjointed. Their futile raps sounded hollow and lonely as they hung unanswered above mah crate.

Life-Is-Bad-Is-Hell-Can-You-Fly-Hel-Hell-Hellp

Finally I took control, and with mah knuckle barked and weeping ah rapped out one last message upon the inside of mah crate.

Beginning with this ill-fated twin birth (in a burnt-out Chevy behind their shack, no less), the book explores the disturbing events that slowly but surely warp a troubled young man into a raving psychopath. To begin with, Euchrid’s family is, to put it mildly, dysfunctional. His mother is a vicious alcoholic; “a scum-cunted, likkered-up, brain-sick swine.” His father – the product of several generations of inbred hill-folk – is obsessed with creating spring-loaded animal traps. He sets the traps and then retrieves the half-dead, mutilated animals for fighting to the death in his “gladiatorial pit,” an abandoned water-tower with chicken-wire stretched over the top. Euchrid himself spends most of his time like a phantom, haunting the periphery of the town’s hostile and close-minded society. Hiding in the shadows at the edge of town, he sees and hears terrible things.
Ukulore Valley is as much a protagonist as Euchrid – full of hard-hearted, self-righteous Bible thumpers, Cave’s Faulkneresque town starts off mean and only gets worse as the story goes on. Like a pack of wild animals, the townsfolk challenge the limits of their collective violence again and again. They storm angrily through the pages of the novel, stomping out everything beautiful in sight and raising a hypocritical fist against anything perceived as a threat to their self-serving superstitions. There is Abie Poe, the frightening, alcoholic ex-con-turned-Preacher who leads his flock in a murderous assault on a local prostitute. There is Sardus Swift, former pillar of the community and husband to an infertile wife, now shamed into seclusion by the town’s open ridicule of her failed public attempt at suicide. There is Wilma Eldridge, a sadistic old “crone” in a wheelchair who metes out judgment and religious dictums like castor oil. And of course, there is the rain.
It rains for three straight years in Ukulore Valley. And while this element of magical realism certainly calls to mind the Macondo of García Márquez, the rain in Ukulore Valley is anything but magical. It is a dirty, unromantic rain, “pissing a dark and gravelly stream down into the valley.” The town is ground to a virtual standstill; the crops all fail, the businesses close, and everyone is driven inside. The incessant rain lends an element of “God’s drumming displeasure” to everything that happens in the town, eroding and finally destroying the smug confidence of the town’s population:

something had been worn from their once hard-lined faces – washed away with the waiting. Something that had been rooted deep in the hearts of these pious souls, that had shone through their eyes, had now vanished. Certainly, the redolence of calm was gone, as was the look of inner confidence, of exclusiveness; and no longer now did the quiet belief in their own supernal destiny colour their expression.

Gone was the god in them.

Despite the religious fervor of the townsfolk, the character who has the closest relationship to God is Euchrid. Throughout the novel, Euchrid maintains a enigmatic correspondence with God which may or may not be the result of his steadily unraveling sense of reality; he sees angels, and thinks the voices in his head are “His Holy choir – His chanters.” Usually, of course, His Holy choir is telling Euchrid to do something strange or violent: he builds an enormous, viciously booby-trapped wall of furniture and scrap metal around his house, and he begins training an “army” of mutilated dogs from his father’s traps. As far as his demented mission goes, this is only the tip of the iceberg; but in the context of the cruel universe which Euchrid occupies, it doesn’t seem all that different from the way the town’s religious zealots warp their Biblical beliefs to support their increasingly aggressive behavior.
And I suppose that’s Cave’s main point. In a world of crazy and dangerous zealotry, where church groups can turn a baptism into a lynching at the drop of a hat, your run-of-the-mill psychopath isn’t all that different from your typical witch-hunting Baptist. Once that playing ground is leveled, it’s really a matter of might over right.
If this insight was the only thing going to recommend And the Ass Saw the Angel, it would likely be shelved up there with half a dozen other half-baked, rock-star-cum-writer offerings with lofty aspirations and flawed executions. But it’s not, and Cave delivers his colorful story with such brilliance, with such compelling conviction, that its internal logic grows disturbingly appealing: Why, of course it makes sense to have the exhumed skeleton of your infant twin brother for company in your swamp grotto. And of course you need to dig a snake pit in the floor of your house. And the Ass Saw the Angel presents an image of the world so distorted it seems to operate on a different moral plane; but like a reflection in a funhouse mirror, the illusion only subverts what’s already there. Whether or not one accepts the moral in Cave’s haunting tale of microscopic cogs and catastrophic plans, it’s hard not to be carried away by the terrible beauty of its telling.

--LJ Lindhurst
13 August 2003

Additional Information

2.13.61 Page -- The publisher’s page contains a synopsis of the novel.

Express Thyself! Say something loudly! -- Kenneth Hognestad’s Masters Thesis is subtitled, “An examination of the frustration of communication in Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel.”

Contact

Email LJ Lindhurst at: ljl@w-rabbit.com

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.