Joseph Mattson
music by Six Organs of Admittance
A Barnacle Book & Record ($15)

by Andy Stewart

Haunted by a dream of God—armed with a bottle of rye, a sawed off shotgun, and his neighbor’s dead body in the trunk—an unnamed protagonist hauls ass across America on a race to beat God to the end of the world. He leaves behind in his rearview the persistent Los Angeles city lights, along with the better part of his left index finger, on a mission to do right by his recently departed neighbor and friend, Hal.

Joseph Mattson’s Empty the Sun presents a frenetic, whiskey-fueled travelogue of the West and Midwest. The protagonist is our guide to a world thick with the excess of alcohol, drugs, and rock n’ roll—a world populated by the tortured, washed out, and deformed, including the aforementioned Hal, a love-ruined junkie philosopher constantly tortured by his greatest love and greatest regret, Maggie; Bug Wallace, the blinded army veteran and sublime master of the blues guitar; and the narrator, a loathsome alcoholic ex-guitar player who lost the index finger on his fret hand to a hungry dog. We journey along with this rogue cast into the dark heart of America, and into the unforgiving, unblinking eye of the sun.

Empty the Sun unfolds as a dance between present action and flashback—two steps forward and one step back. The most memorable landmarks are not the stops along the road, but those conjured from memory. In this mix of past and present, we discover who our narrator was and is, who Hal was in life, and the bad memories from which both are running. We are privy to past conversations between these two damaged men, and begin to understand the essence of their camaraderie, a relationship constructed upon mutual grief and loss.

Mattson offers a new spin on the noir genre in Empty the Sun. His protagonist flees the sensory overload and indulgence of the sleepless concrete jungle, first up the West Coast on Highway 101 to pay his last respects to Hal, then eastward into the starkly contrasted emptiness of middle America where he travels to carry out Hal’s unspoken last wish: to deliver an unfinished letter to the mythic and mysterious Maggie.

With the eastward turn, Mattson’s novel crashes headfirst into a southern gothic style tale, the likes of which even Faulkner and O’Connor would command. The story here becomes dark, atmospheric, rural, ghost-ridden, and even more unabashedly raw than the previous chapters. While unexpected, the fusion of noir and southern gothic is irresistible and deftly managed; the author is a master of discrete observation, yet, in the same moment, can level a word-loaded shotgun at your face and indiscriminately pull the trigger. Mattson notes the peculiar nuances of character and setting in a fantastically unique way, such as when the protagonist first meets Hal and notes he “had skin the bluish-white of melted candle wax dried near a recently burned wick.”

Rich with details that immediately conjure up, familiar places and images, and packed with witty, subtle dialogue and cascades of bold, apropos descriptions, Empty the Sun is an unquestioned feast of language. Were you to underline every jaw-dropping, humorous, or incredulous line contained in this gem of book, your pencil would run out of lead halfway through.

Another surprising and welcome element of Empty the Sun is the novel’s unique multimedia approach: included with the book is an album by musical collaborators Six Organs of Admittance. This untitled work (a plain, silver CD decorated only with the etching of a severed finger) is intended as a companion to the novel, consisting primarily of haunting guitar tracks largely absent of lyric vocals. At first, one questions how the music correlates with Empty the Sun. While there is a despair communicated through the spare, acoustic guitar instrumentation on the opening tracks of the album—a loneliness indicative of our protagonist’s disposition and travel across the empty roads of America—it’s not until track 5 that we get a taste of the juiced up, shredded electric guitar so fitting of the indulgent, oversaturated, and dirty-nailed writing that captivates the reader. For this reason, the album should be considered as more of an addendum to Mattson’s novel—something to experience not necessarily during the reading process (at least not consciously), but to be enjoyed in the contemplative state one reaches after turning the final page.

On his journey across the Midwest, the narrator takes note of a moment when “clarity . . . came burning bright under the yellow morning sun.” The bright sun is a recurring image in the book; it is a harsh, real, and often unforgiving light Mattson spills over these pages and characters. Yet far from illumination, the true heart of this book represents loss—of digits, eyes, limbs, hearts, love, sanity, even humanity. In rhythmic, lyric, passionate writing, the question Mattson poses in Empty the Sun is: how does one continue living with such loss? It’s a good question.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010