Eating at itself 

Jesse Bier's The Cannibal relishes its theme

Author and professor Jesse Bier has worn many hats in his long career. He served in the armed services during World War II, and then became an instructor of English at the University of Montana. He's written critical studies on the existential worldview of Stendhal's The Red and the Black and on Herman Melville. He wrote an essay titled "Flash Gordon Revisited." He has written a book of poetry, Don't Tell Me Trees Don't Talk, and a few novels and short stories. Articles by Bier have appeared in Esquire and Harper's, and he's also received the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, in addition to having been a Fulbright professor at the universities of Lyon and Clermont, in France.

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Now, at the age of 87, Bier is self-publishing a novella on the topic of cannibalism in Montana. The Cannibal is a gothic and nasty little crime piece told in about 90 fast-paced pages. In it, Wilbur Cole, an investigative reporter and assistant editor of the fictitious Missoula Tribune, fixates on the two-year-old case of murderer and cannibal Virgil Sypher, who dismembered the body of a social worker and ate the man's heart near Bonner. While recruiting members of his news team to re-cover the botched investigation and shoddy reportage, Cole finds himself embroiled in an intricate cat-and-mouse game with history. Simply told and mostly dialog-driven, the tale confines itself to brief interviews with individuals pertinent to the event: a sheriff, family members, acquaintances of the accused, several bar proprietors, a coroner, some mill workers and one paleontologist. It's an old-fashioned potboiler, at times intellectually disarming and pointedly page-turning. Cole roams Missoula and its outskirts searching for the answer to the enigmatic crime, until his Agent Dale Cooper-like insights pinpoint an overlooked solution.

Pre-Google days serve as a backdrop to Bier's thriller. Written in the 1970s and unearthed at the behest of the author's children, The Cannibal features a newsroom devoid of laptops and spell-check, when reporting was a matter of walking around and listening. Likewise, the novella is saturated with Freudian terminology and rationales for everyone, by way of Cole's confidante and psychiatrist, Robert Sculli. Interludes utilize psych-speak, such as "substitute dismemberment" and "displacement," and dabble in textbook dream interpretation and undertones of phallic symbolism. Yet instead of interrupting the zinging flow of the narrative, these interludes are, yes, cathartic relief in an otherwise pretty harrowing storyline.

The novella, Bier stresses, is not just about people eating people.

"There are different dimensions of cannibalism in the story," Bier writes in correspondence with the Indy. "And there are different dimensions to cannibalism, moral and psychological."

These dimensions are the gist of The Cannibal, where literal and not so literal cannibalism converge and blur. The added layers also put Bier's work above that of some pulp novelist stuck on sensationalist themes. He is a noted literary theorist, and The Cannibal shows signs of his eclectic scholarship: reined-in prose, two- dollar wit and a fancy lexicon (after reading the novella I can now use the term "horripilation" to describe the feeling the novella induces). The recipient of a Distinguished Scholar Award in 1986, Bier says he has felt most comfortable in academic surroundings, as a globetrotting instructor who's nonetheless always liked the idea of anchoring himself to one locale. He jokes that his forthcoming novel, Transatlantic Lives, is "a miniature War and Peace."

On its surface, though, The Cannibal is an unaffected mystery tale. Twisted and twisty, the novella is as disturbing as it is clever, a statement both on the eating of people, and on the less tangible cannibalism inherent in the blossoming of a personal obsession. "People," Bier says, "can devour one another in various ways."

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