For the first fifty-or-so pages of The Snowman, I thought I’d really found a long lost–heck, a never-discovered–gem. I picked up the Penguin paperback edition at a bookstore in Seattle, attracted by several promising clues. The Penguin edition came out four years after the initial hardback release; despite the fact that the novel was written by an American and is set in America, it appeared to have been published only in the U. K.. The blurb on the back read cryptic enough to suggest something worth investigating:
The Snowman is often infuriating, always compelling, a blinding collage of cross-threads, dead-ends, endless tunnels, red herrings and bang-on target salvos of smouldering reality.
And at first, the work itself seemed a wonderfully bizarre treat. The first chapter ones with an entry from The Motorist’s Guide to Upstate New York, 1939: “Joseph’s Landing (232 alt. 729 pop.) 1.6 miles from State 3, is a peaceful lakeside village of wided, shaded streets and roomy old dwellings first settled in 1802.”
Over the next few chapters, Charles Haldeman introduces us to Joseph’s Landing and some of its inhabitants, past and present. It is, to say the least, an unusual place. There is something odd about everyone in the place. Here, for example, is a bit of town history:
Donatien’s death left Melba and Claude Hagen swamped in the peaked and parapeted four-story sandstone monstrosity at the acute intersection of Joan of Arc and Pierre de l’HÃ´pital Streets. Even when the ground floor had been overflowing with patients and Melba was holding a D.A.R. convention upstairs, the house had still seemed empty, it was so huge. Its original designer and builder, General Gilbert Raye, had obviously suffered from daedalomania. But that wasn’t all he’d suffered from: in 1819, not five years after the last stone was set in his labyrinth, he and a down-eastern prelate were arrested for conducting experiments of an unspeakable nature and sentenced to be hung by the neck until dead and then burnt. Donatien’s great-grandfather Count Joseph de Villiers, a pseudonymous self-made noble who had absconded with the Spanish crown jewels afer the Battle of Waterloo and come to America with grandiose plans for establishing a new French Empire in the North, recognized in the condemned general a kindred spirit and paid him several visits in his cell. On the eve of his execution the wretched man gratefully bequeathed his eyesore to his friend.
This combination of the baroquely bizarre (“daedelomania”; “experiments of an unspeakable nature”) and the down-to-earth (“eyesore”) reminded me in a powerful way of one of the first books I featured on this site, John Howard Spyker’s Little Lives. I could imagine Joseph’s Landing sitting in the heart of Spyker’s Washington County. I even began to wonder if Charles Haldeman was yet another Richard Elman’s pseudonyms.
Unfortunately, the promise is unfulfilled. We move from these lovely odd vignettes into a series of chapters focusing on one and then another resident, most of them leading nowhere and weaving threads never again picked up in the narrative. Penguin’s blurb above is not intriguing praise. It’s a literal description. Haldeman seems to have been unable to decide just what he was writing. In the end, he settles upon a story of misfits and outcasts finding a kind of peace among themselves–the material of a Flannery O’Connor story, but not the end product.
His first novel, The Sun’s Attendant, published just a year or so before The Snowman, apparently suffered from similar problems. One reviewer praised its “Joycean” language but found it an artistic failure. Haldeman told the story of a child survivor of Auschwitz through a variety of textual artefacts but in the eyes of most critics at the time, didn’t manage to bring these pieces together into an effective whole–and he certainly didn’t manage to get past this stage with The Snowman.