Like the holiday, Valentine illustrates both the allure and irrationality of our fantasies about love. Sci-fi writer Lucius Shepard warns us on the first page that we are about to enter one of those countries “governed by their own peculiar laws, which we are persuaded to accept as logical and right, no matter how illogical and wrong they might strike us.”
What follows is a romance that may never have happened. The lovers, Russell and Kay, once had a long affair until the married Kay called it off. Seven years later, when Valentine‘s plot begins, they run into each other in “the strangely elusive country,” Piersall, Florida, where they are staying in adjacent rooms at the same motel. A massive hurricane hits as soon as they arrive, trapping them in a town where there’s nothing to do except have great sex, eat breakfast at Denny’s, and play mini-golf.
But as they resume their passion, strange things happen. One early morning, Russell meets some gruff local fishermen who give him the perfect relationship advice—even though they know nothing about him or Kay. “Thing you gotta get her to understan’, she ain’t who she thinks she is anymore,” one of them says. Later their fishing boat vanishes into the hurricane’s fog.
Other similarly surreal moments start to endow the plausible plot with a subtle absurdity that is the beauty of this small book. Without crossing the line into science fiction, Shepard manages to suspend us in a “dream inside a reality, inside the fog, which was itself a dream inside a reality.”
He accentuates this balancing act by bringing the story to the brink of sappy (“the moment stretched. Grew bloated. Swelled to bursting”) and then self-consciously reeling it in (“we’re living in a goddamn Jane Austen novel”). The language, too, alternates between minimally poignant and over-the-top. “I lay facing you as you slept, imagining all the strange calms and despondencies shifting through your dark head . . . the ghostly slides stained with chemicals that colored your light.”
The constant tugging between acceptance and disbelief is what ultimately propels us forward to figure it out. At one point, Russell wonders if Kay will remember any of their lusty vacation. Why wouldn’t she? Is it all in Russell’s imagination? In the end, when Shepard suggests for the last time that maybe none of this really happened, we realize how much we want to believe it did, or perhaps, how much we want to believe that if we believe, it did.
Also in This Issue’s Books Section:
Richard B. Woodward on Notable American Women by Ben Marcus
Will Friedwald on Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester “Pres” Young by Douglas Henry Daniels