In Joseph Campbell's groundbreaking work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he found a kind of commonality in storytelling across cultures and time, and that most culture's myths could be broken down into a broad outline. "A hero," wrote Campbell in the introduction to his book, "ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
Essentially, this story has four parts. First is the "call to adventure," in which the hero meets supernatural forces and gets his quest. Next is the "road of trials," the adventures and dangers that befall the traveling hero. Then comes the "goal," in which the hero fulfills his quest, before his "return to the ordinary world," in which he brings back power and the ability to transform the lives of his people.
At first glance, this categorization of myth seems to belittle the wonder and imagination that invariably accompany stories. But it's this familiar story structure that gives storytelling its power. Readers and audiences are unconsciously familiar with storytelling patterns and the stories' ultimate conclusion. That's what keeps them reading—to find out how a story turns out. Storytellers play with this expectation. They lead the story away from the expected pattern—say, by putting the hero into serious trouble—and threaten to upend the story. (After all, what use is the story if the hero is killed in the beginning?) In the end, of course, the hero eludes every danger and attains his goal, ultimately satisfying the audience. Music does this, too, by establishing a melody and pulling away from it, thereby creating tension in a listener who knows the song will come back to that pattern, but doesn't know how or when. And there are as many variations on the storytelling theme as there are stories, from the Odyssey to Ulysses and the nested stories-within-stories of A Thousand and One Nights.
Which brings us to local author Josh Wagner's Deadwind Sea, a novel that pays homage to ancient storytelling in a playful and mischievous fantasy of a poor, bumbling sheepherder who journeys to the edge of the world to find and retrieve the spirit of his true love to revive her from a coma she suddenly slipped into. It's the year 1322, and the story opens with a sheep in a tree. Young Sergio—known in the village for his incompetence—climbs the tree and lowers the animal down to his father and uncles, who, forgetting him, leave him in the tree. Along comes a village girl, Ivette, whom Sergio sees as if for the first time, and falls instantly in love. Six days after their wedding, she falls into a mysterious coma. A doctor from Seville says her soul is in the Land of the Dead to the west, and Sergio vows to cross the unknown ocean sea to find it and bring it back home.
Thus begins the hero's quest.
Wagner artfully exploits plot building. Throughout the book, he nests stories within each other, akin to Arabian Nights. But where Scheherazade tells stories to the Sultan to save herself and other girls from being beheaded, the stories themselves are not important beyond that; they're not intricately developed into the main story. In Deadwind Sea, however, the nested stories serve a larger purpose. Told at first as legend, they take on a powerful magic because they actually become reality and interact with Sergio on his quest. Those are the kind of plot twists you'd find in writers of contemporary literary folk tales, like out of the pages of Orhan Pamuk or Salman Rushdie.
Not that Deadwind Sea has "literary" pretensions. There's no social commentary. The characters—while entertaining—have no real discernible inner life. They're there to advance the plot, fill in for the various archetypes of our hero's quest. And the Land of the Dead, Sergio's ultimate destination, ends up being such an abstract, far-out place, so divorced from the everyday world of the reader that it's hard to care about it, and for that reason, it's rendered meaningless. In short, Deadwind Sea is straight-up fantasy.
Still, there is a very skilled writer at work here. Prose turns effortlessly poetic. The narrative voice contains a kind of joyous humor, ready at any moment to boil over onto the page. And it's a playful and inventive story. Deadwind Sea was a pleasure to read, a page-turner full of compelling characters in a long-familiar kind of storytelling tradition.
Josh Wagner reads from Deadwind Sea at Fact & Fiction Thursday, Feb. 11, at 7 PM. Free.