Deals with the devil are a literary staple—too innumerable to start listing here. Bartered with the fork-tailed angel in Craig Russell’s Black Bottle Man (2010) are the pregnancy of two women for the nomadism of their husbands and a teenage son. The three men not allowed to stay in one place longer than twelve days or meet certain death, the only way to eliminate the pact is to find a champion who can defeat the devil. Naturally, the devil gets to keep the soul of every failed champion, plopping it neatly into his black bottle. It’s a premise that makes only partial sense, but a premise nonetheless given the novel’s subtitle is A Fable…
The majority of Black Bottle Man occurs in the Depression-era Midwest. Teenage Rembrandt wanders the countryside with his uncle and father, learning the ways of hobos, yet never staying in one place longer than twelve days. Life on the road is tough for him, particularly as drama after drama strikes he and his family. The fact they fail time and again to find a champion to defeat the devil doesn’t make things any easier.
In a secondary storyline set in NYC of 2007, a former school teacher lives with the guilt of having warned a shooter in her classroom that the police were about to kill him, and because of that he was able to kill several children before police captured him. The media casting the woman as evil, particularly since she asked after the shooter’s wellbeing in the aftermath of the event, she has become a shell of her former self, now living homeless on the street. She and Rembrandt eventually meeting, it is at the convergence of their storylines that Russell delivers the message of his fable.
Black Bottle Man is marketed as a YA novel, which makes for an interesting albeit minor discussion point. I say this because, the book’s non-linear structure and subsequent pressure on the reader to piece the story together themselves is not something one typically associates with teen literature. Russell pulls it off with aplomb, however, in fact, better than many books that are intended for adults. The same pressure, however, is put on the reader in more negative ways, for example forcing them to try to understand aspects of the story that do not have enough background or context. While the novel’s climax is understandable in thematic terms, its fictional elements don’t quite gel given that things previously were perhaps not given the attention they needed. As mentioned, I daresay the deal with the devil also forces the reader to stretch their willingness to suspend disbelief more than it should. Trading children in the womb for the very fathers who would support them after they are born, particularly in Depression-era USA, defies some reason. Adding the magical hobo signs to this mix seems spurious, as well, seeming more ornamentation than necessity. And the title... It has a nice ring, but it is far from the point of the story--the opposite, in fact, one might say.
I don’t know. Perhaps I read the Black Bottle Man as semi-disguised Christian propaganda and therefore apply the fine toothed comb of criticism more than usual? The novel’s message regarding the importance of compassion can be recommended, and as mentioned likewise the atypical structure (and not mentioned, Russel’s capturing of colloquial dialogue). But overall the pieces don’t cohere into a fully comprehensive entirety. A few of the main plot devices seem forced rather than organic, and some of the context, plot build up, and details of character are not always present in enough quantities to deliver a rounded whole. Again, I don’t know… I somehow feel this story would have been all the better in traditional, linear fashion. The fable feel would have been stronger.