by Robert Hellenga
342 pages, Bloomsbury USA
Review by A. J. Barker
In his latest novel, Snakewoman of Little Egypt, Robert Hellenga addresses (among other things) the subject of innocence. His protagonist, Professor Jackson Jones, is an anthropologist, an observer by temperament and training, passive, detached and uncritical—and on a downward curve. He is suffering from Lyme disease, and dreaming of a return to ‘Eden’, which he locates somewhere at the headwaters of the Nile. He did his field work there, years ago, among the Mbuti people, and his reputation rests (in part) on a popular memoir of his life among them.
If he is emotionally engaged with anything human it is the Mbuti—pygmies innocent of reading, writing or arithmetic—they have almost no politics, economics, or social hierarchy. Three or four hours of hunting and gathering a day provide everything they want. They haven’t heard of guilt or shame. Jones longs especially to see Sibaku, who for reasons of her own (curiosity? novelty?) picked him as her lover. Barely adult when she came to him, she is the mother of a daughter he has never seen. In his dreams his daughter calls him back to Africa. He’d like to go, but the Mbuti forests are a war zone and he is persona non grata.
Life at a Midwestern college is oddly similar to field work in Africa. He lives in an isolated house at the edge of a forest. A few hours of work a day provides for all his needs. Women come to him without his initiative. A former girl friend, Claire, now married to an Episcopal priest, pokes and prods at his life. She tries to fix him up, bringing him things he has not asked for (possible girl friends, stock market tips, adulterous occasions.) He is not unfriendly. He cooks for Father Ray and the proposed girl-friend, and later, on Claire’s motion, makes love to her (each of them thinking they are doing the other a favor.)
This rather tepid stew is stirred by the release from prison of Willa Fern Cochrane, a miner’s daughter married at 16 to a snake-handling Pentecostal preacher. She didn’t quite kill him, although she may regret it. According to Brother Earl, she was running around with other men (she says: ‘…and to tell the truth, he didn’t know the half of it.’) In a drunken rage he tests her innocence by forcing her to put her hand into a rattlesnake cage. If the snake didn’t bite she’d be innocent. The snake ignores her hand, but he pokes at the cage until it bites. The matter is settled, but Earl carelessly turns his back and, instead of shooting her, is shot himself. She is convicted when Earl (‘a respectable preacher’) tells the story differently.
Free after nearly six years, Willa Fern is determined to be happy. She renames herself, ‘Sunny’. She has earned her GED in prison. Her uncle Warren, the tenant of a small apartment over Jones’s garage, has enrolled her in college. Warren dies before she is released, but Jones has agreed to pick her up, and let her use the apartment for awhile. Claire invites herself along. Warren has left Sunny all his savings. She’s 35 years old, and a college freshman. She feels ‘rich’ and ‘new’. Her only problem is being married to Earl. Well… Claire might be a problem. She knows she shouldn’t be jealous of Claire—but still, she hadn’t expected another woman.
Jones tells her that Warren wanted him to ‘look after her’. She rebuffs the offer, “I don’t need anyone to look after me… But maybe you need someone to look after you.” He does indeed. Instead of moving to a dorm, she stays in the apartment and helps around the place. Not too much later, when out driving, she pulls into a motel. She asks, “You’re not going to turn me down, are you?” Once again, Jones accepts what is offered, but making love to Sunny is not a joyless reiteration. She is a new person—for her it is a new ‘first time’. Afterward she tells him, “It felt like my whole body was on fire… It was like being struck by lightning. It was a pot of raspberry jam boiling over…”
Jones’s joints begin to heal. He starts to take an interest in life, and in his career. His African field notes have been milked dry. He needs something new and different.
About this time Earl discovers that Sunny is out of prison. They’re still married and Earl is still mad. But now Sunny has Jones between her and evil—and just to be sure, she has him buy her a pistol. When Earl comes for her the pistol persuades him to be reasonable. Jones convinces Earl to agree to a divorce. Earl lets Jones study their religious exercises … and warns him not to turn his back on Sunny.
From this point the lives of Jones and Sunny, which so far had run parallel, begin to diverge. There are irritations. Claire seems to want something from Sunny, and remains a distant threat—the woman Jones should have loved. Over Sunny’s objections, Jones has begun studying Earl’s ‘Church of the Burning Bush’.
Sunny too has new interests. She is fascinated by her biology course, and by Professor Cramer, a demanding and dogmatic Darwinist, a kind of Anti-Earl. For Cramer, snakes are not incarnations of evil. They’re just a research subject. She likes this reductionist approach. He likes her enthusiasm for science, and her fearlessness. She becomes a student member of the herpetological society.
Christmas. Domestic irritations. Jones and Sunny disagree about how to celebrate. Claire moves into the garage apartment for a second try at novel writing.
New Year’s Eve, 2000. They hold a party. Sunny has a thrilling vision of herself as hostess, the first public acknowledgement of her relationship to Jones. She wears a French outfit she bought while shopping with Claire. It’s not a good choice. Her French teacher tells her the costume is out of season. Cramer scolds her, saying it looks ‘phony’ and ‘whorish’. Alone in the kitchen, she pours wine on the blouse, deliberately spoiling her outfit so she can change into something Cramer approves. Also, the dog eats the dessert, and Earl calls, worried about Y2K. He’d like them to get right with God.
February, the new term. Claire has finished a draft of her novel, Jones has written a grant application for his study of the Pentecostals. He tells Sunny he has tickets for a trip to France in June. She declines, preferring to go to a meeting of herpetologists in Baja. Jones is astonished. He had imagined proposing in Paris. He proposes then and there, but she replies, “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Things have taken a bad turn. Sunny spends more and more time at the lab. She and Cramer are attaching radios to rattlesnakes, in effect transforming them from dangerous reptiles to data transmitters. Jones is going the other way. He returns more and more frequently to The Church of the Burning Bush—increasingly fascinated by snake symbolism, and drawn to snake handling. His Lyme disease, which had been better, begins to worsen.
There is always a lot to think about in a Hellenga novel. I don’t believe I have revealed too much. Still to come are the herpetological conference in Baja, Jones’s last encounter with the Pentecostals, an exciting murder trial, and much more. It’s all great stuff.
What’s not to like? Maybe the herpetological data dump—but I thought it was justifiable because it is interesting to Sunny, the budding scientist.
And I wasn’t much attracted to Professor Cramer. But I’m a guy. In his defense, he shows some initiative in love, handles his share of the logistics and doesn’t make unwarranted assumptions. Surely the largest (and most difficult) lesson in this story is that guys should not attempt to dictate what women can want, or believe, or do.
It’s always futile…
… and sometimes fatal.