Dissident Reviews #9: The Neighbor by Caleb Caudell
The word neighbour is a loaded term in our culture. In law it refers to a person who could be harmed by our actions. In everyday parlance it refers to a person who lives near us or towards whom we want to express warmth.
The reason for the concept’s prominence in our culture is obvious. The second greatest commandment, according to Jesus in the New Testament, is to love our neighbours as ourselves.
As Christianity has declined, so too has neighbourliness. Whether because we live in overpriced cells in large cities; because we no longer see our neighbours at church every Sunday; or because they vote for the wrong political party, the loss of community spirit—the loss of communities—is perhaps the most tangible sign of American (and, more generally, Western) decline.
Caleb Caudell does not attempt to grapple with these titanic and ultimately political issues in The Neighbor. At least not directly. He simply wants to show a snapshot of this world for what it is. Spiritless. Lonely. Desperate. Suicidal. And in this more modest quest his novel is an unqualified success.
Jail could not be much worse than his job as a dishwasher at Bud Sampson’s.
Jessie Clemons lives in a small town in the American Midwest. He is surrounded by drugs, which he dabbles in himself from time to time with the help of Ace, the local dealer.
Jessie has a complex relationship with Ace. Sometimes they get high and party together. Other times Jessie seethes over how this degenerate has things so easy while Jessie—an honest, working man—can’t seem to get from zero to one.
Jessie finds himself in what we might call the Raskolnikov Dilemma. Why, in a godless world—a world without supervision or divine judgment—would one man not take from another in order to improve his position in life? Especially when he is desperate and his potential victim is a man like Ace.
It is one thing to rob a man in his prime. It is one thing to take from a man struggling to get by with a long life ahead of him. But it is not so bad to take from a dying man who cannot take anything with him.
When tragedy strikes, the answer reveals itself to Jessie. He pays Ace a fateful visit, a mistake which pushes him onto the road.
None of this is a spoiler. As in Dostoyevsky’s novel, the crime is the prologue, the motivations and the punishment the novel’s real subject matter.
Caudell skilfully switches the perspective from before the crime is committed to after, which enables us to feel closer to and better understand Clemons.
Here is a man who has committed a horrible crime for which he will not accept responsibility. Yet we cannot help but root for Clemons given everything he has endured.
On the way we visit gas stations and parking lots. Diners serving up culinary poison. Pigsties and ghosts from happier times haunting devastated, hollowed-out towns.
He drove for a long time down the lonely road, through the outer rings of collapsed industry and marginal commerce, past derelict factories and smokestacks against the slate-like sky. Past the auto body shops and sprawling junkyards and trash heaps. Big open storage sheds overgrown with vines and weeds, machine parts like relics of a conquered and forgotten people.
There is little by way of plot here. That is not to say The Neighbor is shallow. Like many great literary works, the story is of one man’s journey to the end of his resources, and what pushes him onto this path.
We are left to wonder: if we were in Clemons’ position, how would we act ourselves? No honest person can read this book and answer the question with certainty due to the humanity with which Caudell renders this compelling story.
The ultimate message here—one perhaps the author only intuited—is that all of us are Clemons. We are simply fortunate enough to not be faced with the decisions which presented themselves to him.
We are invited to feel something—maybe empathy, maybe even forgiveness—towards a young man who has committed his society’s highest crime. He could be our neighbour. He could be our brother. He could be ourselves.
The Neighbor is published by Bonfire Books and is available for purchase here.
About Dissident Reviews:
In this series, I review—in a spirit of objectivity and constructive criticism—“dissident” works, by which I mean works establishment publishing houses would overlook for ideological reasons. My motivations for doing so are to:
discover works from outside the mainstream, which I consider politicised and uninteresting;
network with like-minded writers;
promote work I consider good and offer what I hope will be useful critiques for that I think could be better; and
promote my own work.
I am an Australian writer living in France. I am in the process of publishing a three-novel series—the first of which is available here—and have had non-fiction published in Quadrant and Quillette magazines and The Australian newspaper.
Authors are welcome to use quotes from these reviews (with attribution). If you would like me to review your book please get in touch via my Twitter page.