A Review of “The Listener” by Robert McCammon
I just finished reading The Listener by Robert McCammon. Though I enjoyed it, I wish there had been more to the plot and more shading given to his characters.
This was unexpected. I have read sixteen McCammon novels. Whether involving the supernatural, an alien invasion or the exotic criminal world navigated by 18th Century New York detective Matthew Corbett, The Listener, like all Robert McCammon novels, offers detailed settings and lots of characters in a good story.
The Listener takes us to the Deep South of the 1930’s.
A charming grifter, John Pearly, a bible salesman with the face of a choirboy and the soul of a snake intends to fleece a widow and her children. But the steely-eyed widow knows a liar when she sees one and sends him on his way.
In a rage, John kills a litter of puppies belonging to the widow’s children. No redemption there. And time to move on. Destiny calls when John stumbles in to a “sex education” course in another county.
A voluptuous woman named Ginger is doing illustrations on a blackboard, information much appreciated by a crowd of horny farmers, who give her their rapt attention. Ginger’s waiting for the seriously intoxicated “doctor” to show up and continue the “lesson” when she spots John, a kindred soul of the grifter persuasion.
When it comes to evil, meanness and all related concepts, Ginger was at the front of the line when the Devil passed them out.
So of course, John is somewhat smitten, though he knows that she is like a black widow spider, and wouldn’t hesitate to enjoy him as a tasty meal after sampling his smarmy charms. In all his evil deeds, John has never murdered anyone other than puppies. With breathtaking efficiency, Ginger completes John’s bad guy training. The doctor’s last appointment is with the business end of a gun. John is officially a murderer. What could go wrong?
Soon after the doctor’s demise, Ginger ditches John. Outraged, he tracks her to New Orleans and a new identity. Ginger is impressed enough to clue John in on a get-really-rich-quick project.
There’s a wealthy businessman with two children. What if someone kidnapped those rich brats? Their rich father would pay a lot to get them back. If John helps her, he can go to Mexico and live like a king.
Okay then. We’re introduced to Curtis, a sweet natured nineteen-year-old black kid who works as a red cap for the Union Railroad, helping passengers with their bags.
Curtis is a “Listener,”
a term he learned when he was a small child. His mother took her strange little boy to a local shaman (or is it shay-woman—the shaman was a she). Regardless, Curtis kept talking to people in his head and his mother feared he was hallucinating. We learn that Curtis is telepathic. Throughout his life, Curtis has linked minds with other telepaths. Occasionally, when encountering someone less than hinged, he would leave his telepath receiver off the hook.
When he links minds with Nilla, an eleven-year old girl, he knows he has a friend.
His mother, a widow in her thirties, has become a childlike hypochondriac who demands too much of his attention. When a girl breaks Curtis’s heart, it is Nilla who comforts him.
And it is Nilla and her little brother Jack who are the rich man’s children, soon to be kidnapped by Ginger and John Pearly.
I’ll leave the spoilers there.
If this were any other writer, I would end by saying that The Listener was a pleasant read,
a perfect way to spend the weekend on the couch. But it’s Robert McCammon and there’s something missing for me. There’s very little depth to any of it.
Curtis lets nothing deter him in his efforts to rescue Nilla. In the process, he endures a savage beating, a byproduct of the racism of the 1930’s South. And he still keeps going. Curtis is angelic, self-sacrificing and a perfect hero. He does finally set his mother straight, telling her she’s not sick and that she should get a life. Other than that,
Curtis’ unrelenting goodness puts me off.
John Pearly resembles a character from McCammon’s alien war story, The Border. Pearly’s character reminded me of the preacher who becomes a sex slave to an alien whose cartoon sexuality reminds me of Ginger’s hyper-nasty but seductive black widow venom. And like The Border characters, they engage in ritualistic twisted sex.
Although Pearly is given an abusive childhood that explains his character, I never did get a sense of what drove Ginger’s hate.