by Laura Ellen Scott
Pandamoon Publishing, 2016
A lot of the most engrossing fiction isn’t about people, but about things: houses (The Glass Room by Simon Mawer), places (Dune by Frank Herbert), and priceless objects (The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett). In the latter category, we might find Laura Ellen Scott’s latest novel, the smart, funny, and imaginative The Juliet, which explores the history of a supposedly cursed Egyptian emerald and her hapless suitors over two American centuries.
Retired film star Rigg Dexon, the Burt Reynolds of Clint Eastwoods of 1960s American westerns, lives in the Nevada desert in the Mystery House, a shack that’s rumored by treasure hunters to be the resting place of the Juliet, an emerald the size of an egg, broken into unequal halves, with aforementioned origins dating back to Egypt. Rigg has just bequeathed the deed to the house to a young drifter/waitress, Willie Julie, he’s met in a Death Valley bar. Will Willie find the Juliet, or is the myth bigger than the truth?
As it turns out, the myth is certainly bigger than the truth, but the truth is stranger than the myth. The novel, which in the present time spans a week, is much more ambitious in its nesting doll of narratives, which sift back and forth in time through late Victorian Philadelphia, early 1900s mining-town Nevada (the stuff of many a spaghetti Western), and 1950s Hollywood to track the history of the Juliet’s owners while touching back down sporadically in the present, as the latest ensemble of actors fall victim (literally and figuratively) to the Juliet’s spell.
Like her debut novel Death Wishing, Scott is at her best when she opens the doors of the institution and lets her crazies sprint out of the gate. No one is spared: semi-incestuous adult male twins (who in Scott’s late Victorian era are the equivalent of Steampunk bronys), 1970s rock star groupies, desert meth lab kingpins, turn-of-the century Gold Rush enthusiasts, Avon decanter collectors, and every half-screwed mayonnaise jar of schemer in between.
Just like her characters, Scott has a knack for lively description as well: “A man in a rubber suit that looked like a sunburnt intestine” and “The crowd pulsed towards the exit like an unhealthy bowel movement” and “It was as if he was trying to put together a soundtrack of her most terrible moments” are a few of my favorites, but it wouldn’t be exaggeration that you can just open the book to any page and find a line that will make you laugh aloud.
It’s hard to classify The Juliet as one thing: it’s not strictly satire, mystery, adventure, or thriller. Suffice to say, it’s all these things, with a liberal dose of atmosphere serving as the dough, creating, like Altman’s hallucinatory desert vibe in Three Women or a Wes Anderson film, a wicked, sugary dream. The reader might have just as much fun thinking about Scott’s influences as they will reading the novel (A Confederacy of Dunces, Strange Brew, and Breakfast of Champions also came to mind for me). And, like a lot of unforgettable fiction, The Juliet isn’t about its characters, but a force: the Juliet. The cursed, magical power of the Juliet is up to the reader to decide, but like most legends, it certainly attracts more crazies than a Cannonball Run convention.