Callisto by Torsten Krol

This review of the novel Callisto by Torsten Krol was originally published on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show

When I met Odell Deefus in the first pages of Callisto, he was carrying his life in a suitcase: some dirty clothes, a bottle of rum, and a dog-eared copy of The Yearling. That got me, hook line and sinker. Ask any of my friends and they’ll say that pretty much sums me up. And his first-person narration is peppered with affirmations about his own intelligence and good nature, reminiscent of the sort of teenage angst epitomised by Holden Caufield.

The first chapter of Callisto does read like a nod to The Catcher in the Rye, except in reverse — Odell, an imbecilic 21-year-old high-school flunkout, with inexhaustible compassion, is running away from his father, toward an overbearing institution, in this case, the army. That’s where the similarities end. For one thing, the world of The Catcher in the Rye suggested that the goodwill of Holden Caufield would prevail over whatever corruption might try to lead him astray. In today’s world, in the world of Callisto, we find that even Odell, a genuinely good-natured simpleton, cannot escape being tainted by the corruption, and ill-will, of those around him. Oh yeah, and Callisto expands to include a wild, farcical plot about terrorism, providing a fertile setting for exploring how the world might have come to be this way.

It all begins when Odell’s engine blows up, and he enters a seemingly abandoned house looking for a drink of water. Soon, myriad lies, idiocy, revelations, strange events and coincidences begin piling on top of each other.

Odell ends up accidentally killing Dean, the redneck owner of the house, with a baseball bat. He then discovers that Dean was a closet homosexual and recent convert to Islam who had killed his Aunt Bree and stashed her in the freezer. In turn, Odell stashes Dean in the barn, and instigates a national manhunt for, as Odell describes Dean, a ‘murdering homosexual Muslim terrorist’.

Enter Lorraine, Dean’s sister and partner in drug trafficking. Inspired by his unrequited love for her, Odell calls upon a female reporter, thinking that Lorraine will be mighty jealous when she sees him on TV with another woman. In a series of misappropriated sound bites, Odell mentions Dean’s passing quip about his plans to assassinate Senator Ketchum, a presidential candidate in the forthcoming election.

Enter the mass-media beat-up of Dean as the epitome of everything feared and hated in the United States. On to this out-of-control bandwagon leaps a group of fanatical televangelists. They can’t resist the opportunity to drum up anti-Muslim sentiment, by implicating Odell in a terrorist attack on their own church. Finally, Odell gets caught in the rubble, and winds up in a Guantanamo-Bay-like detention centre, under the heavy scrutiny of Homeland Security.

I’ll get back to that, but for now I want to talk about Odell — in particular the way Krol raises important questions of morality by setting up Odell as a contrast for the rest of the characters, and eventually ourselves.

At each step of the way, like most of us in life, Odell is only ever trying to do the right thing — and, maybe, score with Lorraine. Meanwhile, everyone else is pushing their own sinister agenda: Lorraine convinces him to stay quiet about the drug trafficking and look after the house until she can move in; the police bring in Homeland Security to use Odell as bait for Dean — assuming they’re small fry in a bigger terrorist organisation; the mass media exploit him to beat up the national manhunt story; and the televangelists win Odell’s trust, buy him a mobile phone, and then use that phone to frame him as a suicide bomber.

The whole time, Odell doesn’t have the capacity to interpret any of their behaviour as malicious. He assumes the best in people, and gets burned for it. In the classic deadpan style of bleak humour, Krol has Odell tell it just how he sees it, leaving it up to the reader to interpret their behaviour as malicious. By doing so, Krol establishes Odell as a contrast to the worst behaviour of the most important institutions in society — the state, the church, and the press. This exploration of such broad, important and engaging themes is where Callisto really excels.

As I watched Odell taking all this on the chin, I realised that almost any other person in his position would have got malicious in return, to protect their own interests. They would have been suspicious of Dean at least. And if they did hang around to kill him, they certainly wouldn’t have stayed to convince everyone it was self-defence, let alone fallen for Lorraine. Then he played into the hands of Homeland Security, the media and the televangelists. Most of us would have scarpered — or at least tried to cut a deal with the cops to get off the manslaughter charge. By creating a symbol of innocence with Odell, and surrounding him with such pervasive human corruption, Krol seems to be suggesting that there is no hope for the goodness of humanity.

But Callisto is not that bleak. The solution to Odell’s detainment was too convenient for me to take the whole book seriously. So it took me a while to figure out how this book could leave me with a sense of wonder and enjoyment, despite falling so short at the end.

I think it’s because of the way Krol uses Odell to make us think about ourselves. Odell’s unwavering trust of those around him is inexplicable, because it is motivated by a child-like innocence that we, as adults, can no longer access. So as I watched Odell getting battered between the exploits of those around him, I was reminded of my distrust of anyone who seems even vaguely dodgy. And I felt somewhat ashamed, that we’ve generated a society where such distrust is the default setting for our daily interactions.

In my opinion, good writing is writing that forces you to question your dearest values — such as your moral integrity, or your faith in humanity. That I could engage with Odell’s story on such a level is testament to Krol’s ability as a writer. And it’s interesting that what made this possible was something that I initially thought of as just poor character development.

Odell’s narration was so deadpan, on occasion, that it sapped a lot of the emotional tension between the characters. But this left room for my own ethics to inform how I felt about their behaviour. So many narrators we encounter in fiction can be stiflingly prescriptive and didactic. I enjoyed being left alone to consider how these characters’ actions reflected the current state of the world, as much as the state of my own morality. So while Callisto is a self-described journey ‘to the dark heart of America’, it also reveals the shade of our own hearts.

Which is why, despite the too-neat ending, Callisto is a fantastic book. It’s kept me thinking long after its final pages, and I’ll be watching out for the next release from Torsten Krol.