Paul, the main character in Blue Ridge by T.R. Pearson is not a likeable guy. He is ambivalent from the get go and does not seem to have a shred of moral sensibility. Considering this, one might think that the novel would either trace his transformation or his fall. It does neither of these things. Paul goes on an adventure that is full of possibility for growth or change or corruption, but he comes through unmoved, cold as he ever was. So, why did I fly through the book, unable to put it down? Why did I laugh so often? Why is it worth reading Paul’s story at all? At least in part, it’s because of the humor and the sophistication of the writing
Blue Ridge is a self-conscious, laid-back mystery. Though the novel embraces the clichés of the genre, the ironic imagery Pearson uses throughout communicates a self-awareness that adds a touch of satire to the story. When the detective first arrives at Paul Tatum’s office to inform him of his estranged son’s death and asks him to identify the body he is described in a manner that reveals the author’s awareness of the stereotypical police officer, “He was of the standard police build and type. Strapping, I’ll call it, and square-headed, with high-school football in his background and probably a little juvenile thuggery” (7). The phrase “I’ll call it” draws attention to the clichéd description and mocks the scene with its self-awareness. Then when Paul arrives at his dead son’s apartment, his description of the scene cranks up the idea of “gritty” to a ridiculous volume, “I could see a man across the way through his apartment window. He was standing before his television in his under shorts, was massaging his scrotum as he swilled translucent skim milk from a gallon jug” (63). Descriptions such as this one are prevalent, turning grit to absurdity, adding an element of ridicule and dark humor. Another example of such overplaying occurs when the ironically named Kit Carson and Paul’s’ cousin Ray take the bones they’ve uncovered in the wilderness and are investigating to be analyzed by a doctor. The doctor’s office and appearance are described in a way that play with the idea of stereotype, turn it on it’s head by making the scene ridiculous and unconventional, “the pictures on the wall. A cartoon goose with an ice pack on its head, a cartoon house cat with its paw in a sling, a rosy pink cartoon pig with a thermometer shoved up its bunghole” (81). Bunghole! Cartoon animals! And then, the doctor walks in with red sneakers, smoking a cigarette. The way the narrative shifts in this way between the consciously mundane to the absurd add irony and self-consciousness to the narrative, elevating the work beyond cliché by embracing the cliché.
Another way that Pearson tips his cap to the intellectual sensibilities of the reader is his elevated diction. As Ray looks around the town he is to work in he doesn’t just say there is a charm to it, he “declare[s] aloud that it was freighted plainly with promise” (15). The narrator describes an advice columnist he went to for help as a “ceaseless scold with a gossamer New Age turn of phrase, a Californian, that is to say, by psychiatric disposition” (25). Turn of phrase indeed! This is a very complicated and sophisticated description. And Pearson employs this kind of wordsmithing throughout the book. In fact, this is the case whether we are in the point-of view of Ray or Paul. Phrases like “a noxious and intolerable blend of chemistry and decay” (44), “fairly comprehensive faint” (45), and “working at the moment through tenacious psychological misgivings about guns” (198), create an understatement in overstatement. The language is overstated and refined, even about events that should topple refinement because they are so unrefined. The “fairly comprehensive faint”, for instance, occurred when the detectives revealed a body to Paul that was supposed to be his son. A decaying, headless body. Fairly comprehensive does not quite seem to cut it, you know? His jaw drops and he hits the tile, knocking himself out. Pearson’s elevated diction adds irony to the story and engages the reader in the sentences as well as the story. Fairly comprehensive! I’ll say.
Paul describes his son’s girlfriend Lizzie critically, indicates that everything she does seems to be a role she is playing. She is an actress, so it fits. He specifically describes her advances toward him as “her brand of dramaturgical love” (88). As it happens, “dramaturgical” is just the word I would use for the style of Blue Ridge and its inclusion in the story seems to be yet another nod to Pearson’s conscious tweaking and crafting of this not to so typical, typical detective story. He doesn’t shy away from making his story entertaining. The writing is excessive and showy, revealing the writer behind the tale. It seems to me that Pearson took great risk in writing Blue Ridge, and that, I respect. It’s a cleverly crafted book, with an uncomplicated and predictable plot, and without a character you can really get behind. It depends on being crafty, rather than profound. Showy, rather than real.