The true caper—that perfect mix of light-hearted fun and enjoyable adventure—is one of the most difficult literary tricks to pull off. Too much comedy and you drown the plot. Too serious and the story falls flat. And the product as a whole must be genuine—to have a character unto itself. James Blaylock has refined this art to a degree that few other writers have. His books don’t sparkle, they glitter.
One of the novels of Blaylock’s so-called Christian trilogy (a thin moniker at best), The Paper Grail (1991) spins the Holy Grail into a fabulist escapade possible only in rural America. It’s simply incomparable to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Chock to the gills with colorful characters and the remarkable realia of life in off-the-beaten-path northern California, it tells of the museum curator Howard Barton and his trip to Mendocino to pick up a 19th-century Hokusai sketch from an eccentric uncle. Running into the residents upon arrival, particularly the screwball Mr. Jimmers, it isn’t long before Barton is dragged into the local scene—crystal readers, haunted house owners, curio shop proprietors, and of course, the evening parties of the glint-eyed Heloise Lamie who has her own designs on the Hokusai. Studebakers lodged in trees, the art of John Ruskin, invisible kleptomaniacs, a tin shed that produces unearthly noises, cliffside tunnels, and an old flame, Barton finds himself caught in an age old war for something he doesn’t fully understand but may end up dead because of if he doesn’t start digging deeper.
Blaylock excels at portraying quirky, eccentric characters, and The Paper Grail is no different. Conversation peppered with vernacular that rings true instead of painfully overt, hobbies and interests revolving around ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,’ and a village mentality that finds need for revenge in the tiniest of neighborly offenses (of the ‘his tree drops leaves on my yard’ variety), Blaylock has his ears open to the voices of small town America, and seems to capture them perfectly in the novel.
Relentlessly finding the third option (the atypical yet organic story grooves so few writers can locate), Blaylock slowly builds a rich narrative in The Paper Grail. Word by word, line by line, dialogue and exposition are a delight. The whole effect so mesmerizing, the reader doesn’t notice that the story being told is, in fact, quite a standard story. Decked out with the lush characters and their hokily humorous interaction, the plot becomes something of an optical illusion, involving the reader in the scene at hand, so much so they forget the Holy Grail/quest for immortality tale has been done before.
In the end, The Paper Grail is yet another example of Blaylock’s gods-given storytelling talents. Of the same flavor as The Last Coin but cut from a different mold, it’s impossible to enjoy one without enjoying the other. Featuring the same attention to detail, both to quotidian life and the words falling on the page, Blaylock unravels a plush, character-centric story. The Holy Grail central to the plot but secondary to the narrative, it’s a book for readers who enjoy the experience of reading itself as much as they enjoy good storytelling. Blaylock is the reader’s writer. Making the mundane glitter, he just may be the master caper artist.