Bob Stevenson (novel)
by Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69)
Bellevue Literary Press, 2016
Reviewed by Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978-79)
Up until reading Richard Wiley’s new novel Bob Stevenson, I had not given much thought to Robert Louis Stevenson since my sons, now in their early twenties, were in the first and third grades. Alas, both, as I recall, proved equally determined to process through the Murray Elementary School auditorium brandishing Treasure Island in the “Books Alive” parade that serves in our system as a reasonable facsimile of a Halloween event. (I live in a part of the country where enough evangelical Christians write off Halloween as devil worship that bona fide Halloween parties are not allowed in the schools). I finally managed to talk one of them into dressing up as Robin Hood instead of Long John Silver, but it wasn’t easy.
Suffice it to say that Wiley takes Treasure Island off the dusty shelf of the late 19th century and translates its transgressive pirate allure in daring and illuminating ways for 21st-century readers. The BBC’s updating of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective stories, with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sherlock Holmes as a cheeky, high-functioning sociopath as capable of fending off cyber attackers as traditional thugs, may have set a precedent. Readers who grew up, as I did, loving Stevenson, will be amply rewarded, while those who somehow missed out on him will find good reason to accept Wiley’s compelling invitation to take him on, albeit a little later in life than is the norm.
The drama begins with psychiatrist Dr. Ruby Okada bumping into a man with a Scottish accent in the elevator as she exits the office one evening. She is en route to meet a colleague who hopes to pick her brain about “the strange case of Archie B. Billingsly.” “To know something nearly by heart has its ups and downs,” the man tells Ruby, “for hardship resides in the nearly part.” Nothing could be closer to the truth, for indeed the man is Billingsly himself, who suffers from multiple dissociative disorders. In the elevator, he is nearly Bob Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, while at other moments, he is nearly one of its characters, Dr. Livesey or Long John Silver. Nor, as someone whose grandmother, Anna Stevenson Billingsly required him to recite Robert Louis Stevenson by memory, is he forced to limit himself to a single Stevenson novel. He also passes himself off as Henry Hyde, an amalgam of the title characters in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who are two manifestations of the same person, one of them a murderer. In short, in Wiley’s novel, the buried treasure is not gold coins but the secrets to Billingsly’s mental health. It is imperative that they be discovered ASAP because Dr. Ruby Okada’s three-week tryst with Bob Stevenson has left her pregnant with Billingsly’s child.
Somehow, in reading Bob Stevenson, I flashed back to reading John Irving’s The World According to Garp when it came out in the late 70’s. Bob Stevenson is s kindler, gentler novel, and Dr. Ruby Okada only goes so far as a parallel to Jenny Fields, the nurse who becomes Garp’s mother by inseminating herself with the semen of a brain-damaged combat veteran and is later embraced as a feminist icon for having opted to raise her son alone. Still, I see some connections between the two novels in terms of the high imaginative pitch of their characterization. Once, like Pascal with God, I went with the “wager”—why not buy into the characters, as farfetched as they might be, because I have nothing to lose—I had no trouble moving forward. In addition to Ruby and Archie B. Billingsly, the motley crew includes Gerard, Ruby’s Down syndrome assistant who thrives on an obsession with Hal Holbrook; Gabriel Utterson, Archie’s attorney, who drives around New York City in an old London taxi, as if to hammer home the connection between him and his namesake, the lawyer in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Bette, an outlier psychiatrist and former colleague of Ruby’s, who turns to Joseph Campbell in a pinch to help with diagnoses; and Kenji Okada, Ruby’s Japanese father, an artist who changed his luck in his youth by carving a Noh mask of a “round-faced woman with weirdly bobbed hair and a faraway look in her eyes.”
In part because Kanji Okada’s Noh mask is such an animating presence, I found myself, in reading the novel, making comparisons with watching “Spirited Away” or and/or other Hayao Miyazaki films. Also in evidence are childlike wonder, especially as provided by Gerard; a sense of phenomenal psychological adventure; and animals such as Guido the cat and Francesca the dog as spirit guides. There is a sense, too, that Ruby’s wrong turn in hooking up with Billingsly just might turn out in the long run to be the exact right one.
Despite its provenance, Bob Stevenson couldn’t be further from the civilizing influences and idealized codes of the Victorian age. There is not an ounce of mustiness about it. Its mystery, while delineated to some degree in terms of the detective genre, does not conform to it. The mystery is a spiritual one, with love at its heart. I highly recommend the novel to all comers.
Ann Neelon is the author of Easter Vigil, which won both the Anhinga Prize for Poetry and the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Writers and Readers Award. After over six years of directing the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Murray State University, she just stepped down and is looking forward to having more time to write.