Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere by Poe Ballantine
Hawthorne Books, 2013; 282 pp
Reviewed by Clinton Crockett Peters
Poe Ballantine’s new memoir Love & Terror On the Howling Plains of Nowhere begins at a breakneck pace as we learn the author is both attempting to uncover a murder suspect and commit suicide. In desolate and dreary Chadron, Nebraska we have a narrator who is both lonely and rambunctious, stubborn and dynamic. I read him the way I watch distracted hibachi chefs cut up steak and disembowel eggs in midair while the searing flames rise to meet their neck collars. Ballantine’s prose, at first, is equal parts riveting, hilarious, unpredictable and stirring. He makes his short chapters zing and pulls the reader in with his wordy celebration/send-up of the Nebraska panhandle. His memoir seems, initially I should say, on-par with the essays he publishes in The Sun, one of which was chosen by Cheryl Strayed as a Best American Essay for 2013, she who writes the fan-girl intro to Love & Terror. The beginning chapters of Ballantine’s book have more than enough to make you want to keep going. Ballantine, the vagabond idler, can’t stay still in one small town for more than two months and has held part-time jobs until mid-life while poking along at a self-destructing writing career. In Chadron, Ballantine settles and marries, and the book, about midway through, picks up the plot of the “murder” hinted at in the opening teaser. All along the memoir is simultaneously about Ballantine’s bilingual marriage, the birth and raising of his autistic son, and the death of a local math professor, Steven Haataja. Quickly put, Ballantine’s “investigation” hinges on the opinion of his friend and his editor’s husband, a big city cop who feels Haataja died in mysterious circumstances. Ballantine’s efforts to ascertain the truth feel peripheral, and not much of his work goes beyond discovering that Haataja was a very orderly person and that his walk to his resting place would have been dark, cold and lonely. Ballantine never seems to quite have a handle on the case, and this reader actually came away with the opposite, tentative conclusion. Ballantine’s prose in the memoir’s second half often feels rushed and unglossed, almost like an early draft compared to the high-energy, whip smart phrasing of the initial chapters. Ballantine goes on at length, for example, on the possibility of spontaneous combustion. He introduces way too many characters without a reader payoff. And Ballantine’s rocky relationship with his wife feels a bit too much like a fresh wound, though their are sparkling moments of tenderness. Scattered throughout the book is the stilling light of Ballantine’s humor, ernest humanity and delicate sensitivity that mark him as a captivating essayist, even if it seems Love & Terror ultimately needed a couple more years for Ballantine to process.