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R.G. Vliet: Scorpio Rising

This was Vliet’s last book, completed shortly before he died and a fascinating book it is. It is 1976 and Rudy Castleberry is from Alto Springs, Texas. He suffers from spinal dysplasia which means that he is small, ugly and in constant pain. Though from Alto Springs, he is currently working in a stationery store in Massachusetts. While glad to be away from Texas, he clearly misses it and thinks of it often. In particular, he thinks about the cemetery where his family is buried and an untidy, unmarked grave, which, we later learn, has considerable significance for him. He is in love with Lita (and very fond of her daughter, Pearl, who adores him). Unfortunately, Lita welcomes him as a friend but has other lovers. After again being turned down by Lita, he decides to make a trip back to Texas and takes the train. He changes at New Orleans but, when he arrives in Texas, finds that all passengers who boarded New Orleans have to get out and be quarantined because of a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans. Of course, the last big yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans was in 1905. Matters are further complicated when he buys a paper which reports on the Fitzsimmons-Jeffries fight. Which took place in 1902. We never get an explanation for the time travel.

We immediately jump to 1907 where we witness the death of Victoria Ann Castleberry, who, we have previously learned, is Rudy’s grandmother. And then back to 1904 where we learn of Victoria Ann’s sin and what led to what Rudy is today. Victoria Ann is engaged to Carson Gilstrap. She is reasonably happy about this till she meets Earl Leroy St. Clair, son of the senator. They quickly fall in love. But Gilstrap is in the way so Victoria Ann arranges for Junior Luckett, her father’s employee, a victim of spinal dysplasia and madly in love with Victoria Ann, to get rid of him. Which he promptly does. But there is a price to pay and when Luckett is caught in Victoria Ann’s room, Gilstrap’s brothers deal with him and Victoria Ann’s father does not speak to her again till her death.

This could have turned to soap opera in the hands of a lesser writer but in the hands of Vliet it becomes a first class tragedy as well as a poetic masterpiece. Indeed, it is surprising that Vliet has only received a fraction of the recognition that Cormac McCarthy has. This is to take nothing away from McCarthy but merely to point out that Vliet is a superb writer who deserves much greater recognition. Sadly this book is out of print but, if you can find a copy, read it twice. You’ll need to do so to understand the plot and it won’t be waste of your time.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by Random House