FEBRUARY 13, 2021
THOMAS MALTMAN’S The Land is a gloomy, strange novel. On one hand, it’s a tale of lost love, grief, loneliness, and physical entropy that follows a young man after a horrible accident as he takes care of a couple’s dog and property through the winter. On the other, it’s a timely story about the dangers and, for some, the appeal of religious zealotry, white supremacy, and conspiracy theories. Maltman uses elements of mystery, literary fiction, and noir to bring these overarching themes together cohesively, and he adds plenty of poetry along the way. The resulting narrative is dark and depressive, but it illuminates the way religious fanaticism can be a refuge for the lost, often with devastating consequences.
Lucien Swenson is recovering from a car accident. He recently dropped out of college and the woman he was involved with, a married mother named Maura, vanished the night of his accident. Not wanting to go home and face his mother, Lucien takes a job as the caretaker of a house in a large property bordering the woods in northern Minnesota. A hobbyist computer-game programmer, Lucien plans to spend the winter working on a game and ignoring the buzz around the upcoming Y2K. He also plans to investigate Maura’s disappearance.
His investigation takes him to Rose of Sharon, a local white supremacist church deep in the wilderness where Maura’s husband preaches to a small group of people who think Y2K will bring about the end of the world and are ready to move to a place they call The Land. Between the people he meets there, his investigation into Maura’s disappearance, his crippling migraines, and the appearance of the estranged daughter of the couple whose house he’s taking care of, Lucien fails to find the peace he was looking for. Instead, he ends up surrounded by hatred, apocalyptic visions, violence, and uncertainty.
Lucien sees a flock of violent ravens tear each other apart early on in the novel, and those passages allow Maltman to set the tone for the rest of the book. The Land is pregnant with despair and tragedy, which team up to create an atmosphere that’s relentlessly oppressive. Lucien isn’t a likable character, and that benefits the narrative because his changing views and his status as both a lonely, broken victim and a white supremacist sympathizer make him a hard character to pin down. Ultimately, however, his weakness is revealed and his obsession with Maura, with finding her and understanding why she disappeared, morphs into a reasonable facsimile for an excuse to his behavior that works to make him less monstrous while simultaneously failing to absolve him: “Are you dead, Maura? Is your body somewhere at the bottom of Ursine Lake, naked and lashed to stones to keep you under the ice? Are you buried in an unmarked grave in this barren cemetery? Or have you only gone away?”
Maltman’s character development is superb. We never know everything about anyone here, but we know enough to understand that every character is deeply flawed and they all have secret agendas. In the case of Lucien, around whom everything revolves, even his sanity can’t be taken for granted. His crash left him with lingering migraines that incapacitate him and he is sure he can see and perceive things that aren’t there. The fact that he understands that his new heightened perception is the result of his accident makes it seem as if he is sane, but the things he sees, hears, and describes point to the contrary. Furthermore, he constantly brings religion and the supernatural into his discussions, which complicates things even more:
Inside my brain I picked up a vibration, a humming of fear and hunger ahead of the long winter night, joining with a sibling shadow inside them. These birds were only birds, I reminded myself, just animals, and so who knows why they do what they do, but I couldn’t shake a supernatural sense of foreboding. What had Pastor Elijah called the devil? The Enemy. He was here. I sensed Him. He had come with the birds.
After Lucien sees those birds and starts spending time at the Rose of Sharon, his mind slips a little. He thinks his thoughts are “residue lingering from the carnage of the ravens,” but he is well enough to keep secrets, and the church gives him plenty.
The Rose of Sharon is, sadly, not unique. White supremacy and religion have been dancing partners for a long time, and they meet here in a way that feels too real. In fact, there are passages that echo many historical events that have ended up in the news for all the wrong reasons. At one point, Lucien is tasked with posting flyers at a university. The papers he’s given read “IT’S OKAY TO BE WHITE” and “SAVE YOURSELF FROM CULTURAL MARXISM.” The discourse isn’t new, and it never leads to anything good. That he accepts the task and the flyers is problematic, but that he easily convinces himself there’s nothing wrong with what he’s doing is even worse:
I accepted the flyers, glancing once more at the words. I didn’t see anything offensive in it. It was true, right? There wasn’t anything wrong with being white. As for the other one, I had only vague notions of what they meant by cultural Marxism. Weren’t these ordinary thoughts most Americans held to be true? My upbringing had certainly raised me to hate “pinko commies,” as my uncle Nolan called them.
In a nutshell, everything Lucien should understand about the church, the red flags that should push him away, are clear. A perfect example is when Roland, a neo-Nazi, hands him a copy of The Turner Diaries and tells him, “This book will tell you what we’re all about here.”
If the racism should push him away and his rationalization helps Lucien stay, the religion is the glue that seals the deal. Lucien is broken and, as with most broken people, he’s looking for something to help him heal, to make him feel better. He’s also desperately hoping his physical ailments will go away and wants to find God: “If there was such a thing as God, I wanted to know Him. I wanted Mother Sophie to lay her hands on my skull, heal my pain, take away my darkness. […] I wanted my world to make sense again.” The strange experiences he has at the Rose of Sharon easily fit into those needs, and that blurs the line between being there because he’s looking for Maura and being there because it makes him feel good.
Any narrative that tackles white supremacy is timely nowadays, and The Land feels that way despite taking place right before Y2K. The technology wasn’t what it is now, but the differences don’t make the story feel dated. Maltman understands the bizarre connections that can happen between ideologies, geography, and politics, as he mentions in a note at the end of the novel, but the way he brings them together here make this novel feel universal and well timed. Strangely enough, between the prose, the poetic visions, and even the koi, colorful gems at the bottom of a frozen pond, this is a novel in which darkness shines, and that says a lot about Maltman’s storytelling skill.