I promise it's not revealing too much to note that about two-thirds of the way through The Kings and Queens of Roam, the masterful new novel by Daniel Wallace, a goat commits suicide.
The goat is not a major character, and its death is not a major plot point. It's worth mentioning because, in the hands of a less skilled author, such an anecdote might come off as a far-fetched, shark-jumping, fourth-wall-fracturing moment of forced whimsy. But here, our state of disbelief has been so well suspended that it feels perfectly apt and plausible that a goat could not only fall deeply in love with a farm cat, but also that it could die of a broken heart.
It's a testament to Wallace's skill at what one character calls "maintaining fictions" that we are so immersed—or, in psychologist Bruno Bettelheim's locution, enchanted—by the tale he's spinning that we don't blink an eye at the idea of a lovelorn goat. Best known for Big Fish, which became a Tim Burton film and also has much to say about the power of stories, Wallace gives nothing short of a bravura performance in the art of storytelling. Bettelheim posited that fairy tales, with all their violence and cruelty, serve to introduce children to the harshness of adult life and teach the ability to face one's trials with confidence. Fairy tales for adults are not much different: They, too, aim to entertain as well as inspire us with the wisdom contained within their fanciful storylines. In Roam, Wallace, the head of UNC's creative writing program, balances the primary goal of storytelling with the underlying one of providing inspiration and insight, and he achieves both aims spectacularly.
The goat story comes to us as a fleeting childhood memory of the extremely diminutive Digby Chang ("Not a midget—never a midget—but just a very, very, very small man"), who slings drinks in the last bar in the dying town of Roam. Digby is the heart and soul of the book, a man who ministers to the town's few remaining living customers along with a cohort of its dead, who, he ruefully notes, never order anything. Digby, who seems to be a spiritual ancestor of Salinger's tiny man with an unlit cigar in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, is one of the book's many resonant characters. They keep us grounded in a recognizable human dimension in a far-reaching story that also touches upon the mating habits of lonely lumberjacks, magical elixirs, a rickety bridge over a bottomless ravine and a three-legged blind dog named Carla.
The main action of The Kings and Queens of Roam concerns the McCallister sisters and the history of the town where they expect to live out their lives together: "[a] small settlement lost somewhere in a blanket fold of American terrain." Roam is a dream of a dream, a place brought into being by the great-grandfather of the two chief protagonists, who are known around town simply as "the girls." Moving back and forth from Roam's origin story and the ostensible present, the book depicts the complex machinations between the beautiful, blind Rachel and her older sister, Helen, who is cursed with a hideous face. ("Only her mother smiled when she saw Helen; only a mother could.") After their parents die and Helen is left to fend for both, she perpetrates a falsehood that has unexpected and profound ramifications for their seemingly predestined coexistence.
Indeed, the mysteries and the magic of coexistence are one of the book's broad concerns, for there's no existence without coexistence. In Roam the dead coexist unobtrusively with the living; in its characters, hate and love coexist in the same heart for the same person. That theme of coexistence finds its way into the prose itself, which casts a spell through a deft combination of zingy lyrical passages and contemporary modes of expression, wherein the fanciful mingles with the plausible, the goat with the cat.
In this complex and gratifying yarn, Wallace shows us how we become the people we are, even if it's someone we never expect to be. He shows us how circumstances can change us in an instant, either in how we react to those circumstances or in how we resist them. If "Life is about making worlds," as one of his characters says in The Kings and Queens of Roam, Wallace is truly alive in having made this one.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The uses of enchantment."