Getting lost within the pages of a book can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but what happens when obsession goes too far? In his second novel, Boston writer Jaime Clarke explores the darker side of literary admiration. The result is “Vernon Downs,” a stunning and unsettling foray into a glamorous world of celebrity writers, artistic loneliness, and individual desperation. The novel itself is unassuming enough: a meek paperback totaling 165 pages, easily lost among a bookshelf of grander volumes. However, the old adage about judgment and covers should be taken seriously here—this little book has a lot to say.
Clarke immediately introduces the source of conflict, and from here the novel unfolds with a calm strength that easily propels the read. He introduces Charlie, a middle-aged creative writing major with a past of chronic abandonment and an unfortunate crush. He’s infatuated with international student Olivia, but she only wants a summer fling with an American; predictably, Charlie finds himself deserted, cripplingly heartbroken, and unsure of his next move. In a last-ditch attempt to gain experience worthy of Olivia’s attention, he vows to link himself to her favorite celebrity writer, Vernon Downs. What follows is a steady descent into emulation and instability that both is wild and feels strangely natural.
Clarke deftly constructs his characters from the ground up, using succinct and poignant descriptions that give deep insight into personal motivations and limitations without bogging down the text with obvious, forced characteristics. In the center of this finely woven fabric of personalities is Charlie. The orphaned loner has clearly established emotional trauma that has the potential to limit his actions. However, his desperation is coupled with a clever cynicism that saves him from helplessness as the work develops. He craves attention and stumbles to rescue himself from an endless cycle of dead-end relationships that require little emotional skill but a lot of cunning. While reading “Pride and Prejudice” in class, Charlie is forced to stop, “as the phrase, ‘It is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life’ upset him so much that he couldn’t continue.” Clark’s scattered glimpses into his psyche reveal a battered soul innocently sensitive to his surroundings.
As Clarke filters the world through Charlie’s eyes, the character’s irrationality becomes unexpectedly relatable. Charlie’s emotional reactions are extreme, but at their essence is the universal desire to fix things, to patch relationships and avoid confrontation, to crave acceptance and fear abandonment. Charlie loses himself in these motivations, leading to an immersion in literature that has him eventually forcing himself into the world of writing and publishing through his connection with author Vernon Downs. Driven by the link he sees between this celebrity and Olivia, Charlie becomes increasingly bound to Downs’s identity until his preoccupation threatens to suffocate him. Fan obsession has been a topic of creative expression many times before; however, in the capable hands of Clarke, the dynamic between Charlie and Downs expands to a commentary on literary exaltation itself. Downs becomes the manipulator, and Charlie becomes the victim; underneath the monopoly of celebrity gossip and adoration surrounding Downs, the famous author’s shiny world dims with scrutiny. Clarke’s carefully constructed dynamic begs reconsideration of what it truly means to become a successful writer.
In light of the book’s unstable, emotionally charged content, the storyline
could feasibly become smothered by the heavy tone. Thankfully, with “Vernon Downs” this is never the case. Clark’s storytelling is subtle but strong—the prose paints an effective emotional landscape following the main character’s inner ramblings: “Charlie migrated unencumbered toward the subway, disguised in the crowd as somebody racing toward something…. He refused to acknowledge the emotional attrition invested in every next adventure, every new face, every new terrain.” Clarke manages to gracefully balance artistic imagery with meaning, maintaining a novel that is as readable as it is evocative.
Indeed, at times it seems like Clarke could elaborate more; his substance-rich prose becomes too concentrated with meaning in a few instances, creating indirect leaps in understanding. However, any frustration at the momentary loss of comprehension abates as Clarke’s steppingstones finally reveal themselves, leading to textual discoveries that feel more satisfying than they would be if the author spoon-fed context. “Vernon Downs” avoids the pitfalls of predictability and monotony beautifully, embodying an emotional journey through obsession and imitation that is at once encouraging and disturbing, heartening and disconcerting.