The Baltimore Atrocities
A Novel by John Dermot Woods
Coffee House Press, October 2014
314 Pages, $17.95
Reviewed by Nick Sweeney
John Dermot Woods, a familiar voice for readers of the Atticus Review, finds what so many of us are in search of with The Baltimore Atrocities. It’s a story of Barney and his companion in search for their lost but not forgotten siblings, it’s about the daily ghosts we see and revisit, it’s a diorama of a great city filled with the lost and the found, and how results don’t always mean closure. It’s a book structured to jab the reader, wear them down, and leave them unsteady for the final knockout punch. The Atrocities is a not so subtle reminder of the world we live in, every dream and nightmare included.
The opening paragraph is an eerie anthem to those in constant search:
“Those who have lost something important, like a mother or a father, or a brother or a sister, before they have a sense of themselves, must face maturity as seekers, constantly distracted by glimpses of things that are lost, with the hope that those things might be recovered. These people, people like my companion and me, have no choice but to chase fleeting visions, because, until they can be fixed and defined, our consciences will be wracked by a constant and grating sense of incompleteness.”
And with this, Barney heads deep into the labyrinth of Baltimore. With him is his companion, a man focused on the mystery itself, a man focused who does not intend to be lost in the city where so many things go to be forgotten. A third companion, Lucia, joins them having lost her own brothers years earlier. All three find what they are looking for albeit not exactly what they were in search of in the first place. If you were to stumble upon Dennis Lehane and Jorge Luis Borges in a bar near closing time with the noises and fog of night fading in the background, you’ve entered in the land of The Baltimore Atrocities.
This overarching journey of Barney in search of his brother is a fresh take on the detective story, the idea of it being a “whodunit without the who” being a headline of what the novel is actually about. Instead of focusing on the monster responsible for such a terrible act, Woods focuses on the more tragic figures in such a story: those left behind, those that must pick up the pieces and fill up the empty spaces with a deadly mix of hope and unfortunate reality. Hope drives people forward; it gives them just enough gas to be within distance of the constantly changing destination. Woods does this masterfully with the inclusion of small, but most definitely not minor, stories of atrocities we may all be familiar with, if only by the headlines we try to ignore.
Many of the stories have been published both in the Atticus Review and elsewhere, they are quick photos of a longer road trip we hunger to be part of. With The Baltimore Atrocities, readers can understand the importance of every one. They serve a purpose higher than simple repetition. In an interview with Jamie Iredell, Woods explains that “They’re all descriptions of atrocity (hence the name, The Baltimore Atrocities). Atrocities come in many forms, exist in the mundane as well as the extraordinary. By placing them beside each other, on the same level, I think these chapters will make the ubiquity (and relative nature) of atrocity apparent.” This is true for the structure of the novel and how the definition of atrocity is malleable to certain situations. Some of the stories within are personal atrocities while other are societal. The numbness that readers may feel after reading story after story about dead civic service workers, missing children, and broken families is warranted. It’s important to feel that numbness. While some may ask why it seems to beat a dead horse, Woods is showing us a very necessary but uncomfortable truth. All of these stories could easily be ripped from the headlines and most people would most likely flip to the back pages of the newspaper to see how Buck Showalter and his Baltimore Orioles are doing.
Some of these stories stick to you while others may blend into each other. The incredible honesty of “An Accomplished Runner” reminds us of the journey at hand is only a journey because we choose to go forward. “A New Conundrum for the State” makes us wonder about the nature of fiscal health and the moral diseases that come with it. “Daycare” rattles the cage of humanity; it asks a very important question about our social responsibility to each other in a way that frightens the reader. There are countless stories included in this that make you understand what it’s like to lose something, flipping to just about any page will allow you to do that. Woods doesn’t overload us, each story is quick and efficient and is as painful as that initial cut with a razor while shaving. They sting just enough to remind us we’re human.
The defeat you feel after reading The Baltimore Atrocities isn’t your fault. The daunting feeling you get, the idea that the headlines will haunt you for more than you’d like, it’s all necessary and intended. When we finally find what we were looking for, we may stumble across something altogether new. It may not be what we were looking for in the first place but we’ll need it all the same.