Infused with schizophrenic logic and a gleefully unique syntax, Travis Jeppesen’s debut novel, Victims, reads like a fictional embodiment of outsider art. Its bosky surrealism and anti-authoritarian aura suggest Henry Darger’s Realms of the Unreal, and like Adolf Wölfli, Jeppesen has a flair for skewed reasoning and an obsession with internment. Jeppesen’s novel also shares with the life and work of Darger and Wölfli a looming sense of stolen childhood and loss never fully mourned.
In Victims, teenage Herbert loses his mother, Tanya. Jeppesen skillfully shifts between portraits of these two characters, collapsing past and present to emphasize their mirrored lives. We meet Tanya as a glue-sniffing repeat eighth-grader who soon becomes pregnant, runs away from home, and joins a religious cult called the Overcomers, based loosely on Heaven’s Gate. These chapters intertwine with glimpses of Herbert, years later, living with his mother at the cult’s compound, where his own rebellious nature forces him to flee. While his mother seeks the spiritual, he moves to a farm to seek salvation by pondering the earth, his body, and cows.
Victims kicks off Akashic Books’ Little House on the Bowery line, which series editor Dennis Cooper says will showcase challenging writers ignored by the mainstream. With its wild juxtaposing of different worlds, Jeppesen’s book fits the bill. His portrayal of the cult shows off a gift for bizarre rhetoric: The leader claims to be Christ in the flesh, and followers believe their souls will be whisked to a new world via spacecrafts. Herbert’s almost lunar descriptions of the isolated compound stand in stark contrast with the guru’s enthusiasm. Yet even after Herbert escapes, his vision remains gnarled by the past. On his farm, he thinks, “One day, I will get killed amongst the violence of all this open space.” He befriends two other motherless men, man-boy Ruphis and self-destructive Howard, who is working on a book called Victimology, and basing it on Herbert.
Which means that some or all of the events in Victims could simply be the product of Howard’s tortured mind. If Jeppesen’s quirky novel has a shortcoming, it’s that it accommodates almost anything, from thoughts about snot to a scene in which silent men suddenly build a white wall in Howard’s house. Yet the book’s charged characters stop it from becoming simply chaotic. An artfully fractured vision of memory and escape, Victims maintains a rigorous structure throughout—even when the aliens show up.