Jamie Sheffield's debut novel, "Here Be Monsters," is both an engaging mystery story and a thoughtful journey into unmapped physical and social spaces. Though we often consider our world fully mapped, Sheffield reminds us that even within the Adirondack Park there are great voids in our understanding. "Here Be Monsters" balances strong, place-based storytelling with unexpected transits of its main character's uncommon mind.
Tyler Cunningham is a subtle genius - voraciously self-educated, dangerously curious, and selectively law-abiding. Though he comes from downstate, Tyler embarks on camping trips, geo-caching outings, and aimless rambling to install a working map of the routes and spaces in the park. They include deep spots in Lower Saranac, abandoned mineshafts, glacial erratics, dead end dirt roads with trees down and shady sub shops in the park's biggest town.
Tyler is simultaneously fascinated by mental mapping and wary of nuanced human interaction, a tension which frames his galloping adventures. In the first few pages, he says:
"Early on, I found that people up here all had maps of the Adirondacks in their heads, most of them entirely devoid of detail for the majority of the Park I made it my goal to learn about the Adirondack Wilderness, to find the great places and add them to my mental map The mapping process allowed me to familiarize myself with the place I was living without ever having to get to know (or map) the people living around me"
The narration is sprinkled with little afterthoughts and insertions, which appear (distractingly) in both parentheses and italics. Each emphasizing technique would be more useful if used separately. But this, along with other stylistic quirks -?like lists separated by slashes instead of commas (" rumbling oddly in the wet/cold/dark"), and weirdly specific timestamps on each chapter - are elements of Tyler's persona. He's no monster, but Tyler Cunningham is definitely off the normal charted areas of human experience.
Instead of crying over the disappearance of his closest friend, Tyler breaks into her home and takes an inventory of her possessions. Later, Tyler is shot, and not only recovers physically very quickly (with the help of veterinary medicine), but arranges a chilling treasure hunt for his assailants. His emotional response to dispatching two of his pursuers, deep in the wilderness, is surprisingly remorseless.
But, the Adirondack Park through Tyler's eyes is refreshing. Though it's tempting to label him as a high functioning autistic, or with Aspergers -?either of which might be clinically correct given the behaviors detailed in the novel - "Here Be Monsters" is about a unique and unexpected way of seeing the world, not a medical condition.
Tyler finds solace in mapping human interactions through writing. He has, for example, categorized 19 different types of smiles, including No. 3, "friendly, sincere, helpful," and No. 8, "sucking up in an obsequious manner."
We get glimpses of Tyler's social maps, but mainly we just know that he's not in the same reference system as we are. The distortions in his feelings of pain and understanding of emotional displays, all seem to be from some other type of map - like we're approaching the northern margins of a Mercator projection.
Thankfully, Sheffield anchors this quixotic internal map with a physical geography that's both accurate and fresh. To anyone who's spent some time exploring the park, many of the points will be familiar: a derelict logging bridge over the Bog River, the abandoned mines and settling ponds around Tahawus, and back roads near Big Moose. Sheffield balances points like these with the roads and landmarks that even a casual visitor knows well, building a mental map accessible to a wide range of readers.
But, for a book about the unknown corners of the park, there's a conspicuous lack of maps. The basic frontispiece doesn't highlight any of the points or routes specific to the narrative. I would have enjoyed a little creative cartography to supplement each section of the book.
Even without the maps, Sheffield's writing style carries the story smoothly between obscure points. "Here Be Monsters" is a rare combination of both quick and good reading that left me interested in the next Tyler Cunningham installment.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.