As a rule, if you want to write a good memoir, someone—the ex-husband, the distant father, the jilted lover—must die. For it is only by leaving the nastiest bits on the cutting room floor that you avoid outright exile from family potlucks or the aisles of your local Pathmark (let alone lawsuits). And it’s precisely because Poe Ballantine doesn’t give a shit about this rule that his memoir succeeds so brilliantly.
Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere begins with a burn-out and ends with a cold case. Ballantine arrives in Chadron, Nebraska at the end of a string of epic failures, dogged by debt and the collapse of another ill-fated romance. At the age of thirty-eight, he checks into a low-rent motel with a mind to kill himself, only to fail at this intention too. Instead, he gets a job as a cook. He befriends a man with no arms who can drive to Wyoming with his feet. He starts a new novel. He heals.
But just as Ballantine manages to build up some measure of security, the old restlessness kicks in and he is off again. First to Arkansas, and from there, half a dozen states in so many years. Finally he lands in Mexico, where he meets Christina, another damaged soul—a serious car accident has left her with wounds both psychic and physical—and decides this is the end of a different kind of line. He marries Christina and, remembering Chadron as a cheap but still-interesting enough place to build a life, suggests that’s where they start anew together. Cue the vaguely ominous synth sounds.
Memoirs often traffic in relationship post-mortems. What Ballantine offers here is far more difficult to pull off and considerably more rare: a mid-mortem. With a lapidary eye, Ballantine chronicles the banal ways in which hope gets cheapened, the digs that don’t quite pass for jokes, misunderstandings hardening into intractable positions. Christina, a salt-of-the-Earth-type, sees Ballantine’s writing as a waste of time, while Ballantine’s Holden Caulfield complex makes it difficult for him to earn a living using his obvious talents and provide Christina with the stability she craves. (He vows never to work with a major publisher again after his relationship with an editor goes sour.) Within a few years in Chadron, the two are deep in trench warfare, their lives further complicated by the arrival of a son diagnosed with Autism and the pitiless grind of menial jobs. Yet the stakes for survival are high for Ballantine; these two souls and the cord of responsibility that binds them, one senses, are the only things keeping him from blowing away, finally and forever, like a used scratch ticket across the blasted Nebraska plain.
Into this unhappily-ever-after scenario, arrive Ballantine’s glamorous publisher and her new beau—a bona fide detective—for a weekend visit from Portland. Rhonda is full of best-selling suggestions for Ballantine: a book about Autism (guaranteed niche market), a cookbook (doesn’t everyone love cookbooks?), a story built around hilarious police dispatches from the Chadron Record, or better still, how about some kind of true crime thriller? It is only then, a full third of the way through the book that we are properly introduced to Stephen Haataja, the awkward and reclusive math professor whose body will be found bound to a tree and charred beyond recognition on a patch of distant ranchland. A death unsatisfactorily categorized as a suicide by a similarly unsatisfactory local police department.
As with Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries, Ballantine’s personal connection to the subject is slim; one gets the sense that the sum total of his conversations with Haataja wouldn’t span a Sunday brunch, which brings us to a touchy issue. Hitching the story of your work-a-day life to a near-stranger’s unthinkable tragedy can, after all, be viewed as nothing more than cold-blooded exploitation. It’s a problem Ballantine openly wrestles with and it’s no great surprise when he finds himself stonewalled by Haataja’s family, grouped in with the other media vultures. This exile is the reason Ballantine can’t offer us more than a thumbnail sketch of Haataja’s early life. And herein lies the book’s only real flaw—one never comes to care deeply about Haataja for the simple reason that one can’t see him clearly enough. Ballantine is faced with the task of reconstructing Haataja’s life based almost entirely on the testimony of those who knew him at the end, and he can never quite surmount that difficulty.
But what he lacks in background, Ballantine makes up for with empathy. His battle scars better enable him to recognize a fellow lost soul (the bare mattress on the floor of Haataja’s apartment could be a prop from his own peripatetic past.) As the locals trade deli-counter gossip about Haataja’s possibly repressed homosexuality, his aloofness and odd social mannerisms, Ballantine wonders if Haataja, like his son, couldn’t also be placed somewhere “on the spectrum.” Only by “spectrum,” he is referring not so much to autism as the vast wilderness of human behavior and emotion that we don’t have adequate words for yet. The outside world has already begun circling the wagons around his son in myriad ways, and by telling his story, Ballantine shows just how quickly a diagnosis can become a moral judgment. The subtext here lies in plain view: Whatever happened to Stephen Haataja, he probably deserved it.
Not that the facts are particularly flattering. Haataja’s arrival in Chadron was presaged by divorce and a mental breakdown that culminated in a suicide attempt. Landing a low-paid academic post on the fringes of Nebraska after earning a hard-won PhD in math may have seemed like a consolation prize. Haataja was well-respected but had few close friends, and was alone the night he walked into a liquor store to buy the bottle of schnapps that would be found empty near his dead body.
Despite the ballast the Haataja murder lent the narrative, I have to admit, it was the case of Ballantine’s marriage that I really longed to see solved. Christina has her Catholicism, but for Ballantine, writing is God. And in laying bare his daily struggle to stay in love, the door to the confessional remains open even as the most damning sins are aired. It is hard to navigate such terrain without falling into the rut of self-pity, but Ballantine purges himself with such lush, heart-stopping prose and self-lacerating wit, it’s impossible not to be won over. You root for these two, despite what any glossy-mag romance quiz would no doubt tell you about their compatibility or chances.
As for Ballantine-the-self-styled-investigator, he only improves as he gets deeper into the mystery of Haataja’s death, learning to tell, literally, which way the wind is blowing, growing meticulous and even obsessive in his study of the evidence. At the start of the book, Ballantine deadpans that “most people would rather live in an outhouse in Bangladesh before they would voluntarily move to Nebraska.” While that might be an overstatement, it’s safe to say that Chadron—unless your goal happens to be, say, building a better firing range—is one of those places worldly ambition goes to die. (This explains, in part, why Poe Ballantine still works as a floor sweeper.) A decent chunk of the people who choose to live there are trying to get very far away from something—quite possibly themselves. For that reason, Ballantine can find plenty of suspects among this self-selecting fraternity, each equally plausible and intriguing.
I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that Ballantine up-ends the true crime formula in a way that’s both deeply satisfying and deceptively obvious. Love and Terror even manages to hit all the marks Ballantine’s publisher originally laid out for him: it’s a memoir, a true crime thriller, a book about autism, and a catalog of the Chadron Record’s quirky police log. (It’s maybe one-appendix short of a cookbook, but who knows, I’ve got the galley.) Most of all, it’s that rarest of things: a book that lives up to its blurbs. And if you are like me, you will finish it thinking, For the love of God, will the Chadron State College English Department please give this man a job?
Alina Simone is the author of the essay collection You Must Go and Win and the novel Note to Self, both published by Faber. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Review, among others.