Stray Not Beyond
by Michael B. Pinkey
(Writers Club Press / 0-595-26001-2 / 978-0-595-26001-0 / December 2002 / 228 pages / $14.95)
Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM
Irving Carlisle, age and occupation unstated, has spent years refining his pipe smoking habit. Perhaps his biggest challenge has been to find a truly satisfying pipe tobacco. One day he receives a piece of junk mail. Addressed to “Occupant,” it offers for sale a tobacco with the odd name of “Suttlespyce (Number 17),” which he orders on a whim. When it arrives weeks later he finds it transformative: it is the life-changing blend he has dreamed of, a true miracle. He becomes a regular customer for two years, until suddenly all his orders and further communications with the address are ignored, leaving him utterly desperate.
He takes leave from his job, and he and his cat Tweedler drive to Otterwood, North Carolina to get to the bottom of the mystery. He meets a succession of increasingly odd characters and bizarre situations that eventually become almost psychedelic in their strange randomness. I found myself thinking of Alice in Wonderland, except the present characters and situations are not nearly as endearing or totemic. Alice in Wonderland, after all, is a universally familiar worldwide treasure by an eccentric mathematician, written for children and adults who retain a measure of child-like wonder. The fictional territory of Stray Not Beyond's never-never-land part of North Carolina is more disorienting and threatening than charming.
As I plowed through the hallucinatory episodes that constitute the bulk of Stray Not Beyond I kept telling myself it might all be worth it if there were a point ahead, either a plot-related or other thematic justification. I have nothing against novels which do not fit existing genres (I am the author of several), but I do ask that a novel have unity, and that the parts of it be there for a reason. Thus I was rooting for the story to come together at the end, and hopefully disclose the raison d'etre of the strange conceits that predominated throughout. The book's cover offered no clue: is it an odd melange of North Carolina forests, or perhaps a close-up of pipe tobacco? I have no idea. If I were browsing a book store it would not cause me to pick it up and read the back cover.
I can say several good things about the book. There is a conclusion, at least to the mystery of the disappearing tobacco, though I cannot say that that conclusion made the odyssean, fantastic ramblings of the main character any clearer. The prose was cleanly written, even though in my opinion the story was not tightly conceived. There was minimal profanity, sex, and gore. I don't reject those things out of hand, but in this case on top of all the bizarreness they would have been too much.
I'll have to be content in the knowledge that Carlisle did find his pipe tobacco. I was also pleased to see that my favorite character, Tweedler, survived despite being sadly neglected in the middle of the story. Whether that says more about my character or Irving Carlisle's lack of it, I do not care to contemplate.
Stray Not Beyond is a work of considerable imagination, and as such might appeal to readers who enjoy sheer fantasy. For my part, I prefer my fantasy (or whatever style) assembled with a little more discipline.
Devon Kappa's Review at None May Say