This isn’t going to be about Viagra or any other male enhancement drug, so if you’re looking for that sort of thing, turn on ESPN. Is it me, or can you not watch ten minutes of basketball without some guy rigging a sailboat or using a chamois to vigorously shine a nuclear warhead? You’d think everyone who watches sports has fallen prey to erectile dysfunction (either that, or sports fans are into phallic imagery, which is probably closer to the truth).
But all that aside, what I’d like to talk about now is Joan Samson’s The Auctioneer.
I read this quite awhile ago and thought it was good. Not great, but good enough that I felt I’d gotten my money’s worth. But something strange happened in the days and weeks that followed. The book stayed with me. And I don’t mean I merely recalled the book’s plot or the names of the characters—I mean the book got under my skin.
I went the next several years without investigating why the book disturbed me to such a degree, but for whatever reason, I’ve never quite been able to shake the concept:
John Moore has a good family and a good life. A stranger moves into town. The stranger (the eponymous Auctioneer) seduces the townsfolk and begins to take things from John. Then the Auctioneer takes some more. And more. And more. And more…
I’m no psychologist, but I’ve often heard said that one of the primary human impulses is to control our environments or to control our lives (fool’s errands both). That impulse is best exemplified from this early snatch of dialogue. Sheriff Bob Gore has already met and been seduced (mentally/emotionally) by the Auctioneer. He shows up at John Moore’s farm wanting John to donate something for the auction (and even from the very first page, the verb donate takes on some pretty sinister connotations). John asks what the auction’s being held for. Gore tells him he’s decided he needs some deputies (despite the fact that the town’s main street is shorter than a sailboat mast—Consult your doctor if your condition lasts longer than forty-eight hours…). Here’s John’s response:
“If everybody in town was a deputy, there’d still be trouble,” John said. He eyed his tidy white farmhouse. “And we got our fair share of peace in Harlowe too.”
The dialogue is good, but the beat is great. He eyed his tidy white farmhouse. In that one bit of description, we get John Moore’s worldview in a nutshell. He’s happy with his life and thankful for it. He also damn well doesn’t want it changed, thank you very much. Like his farmhouse, his existence is tidy. But Samson sprinkles in foreshadowing in these ominous early chapters the way an expert chef seasons a steak. Take this Montreal rub from page fifteen (Sheriff Gore is talking to John’s Ma about the new Auctioneer, the fabulously-named Perly Dunsmore):
“You’d like him,” Gore said. “He’s got that way about him women like. And he’d see the value of a well-kept farm like this.”
Again, it’s the connotations of the words that matter—not just the comment about Perly’s way with women, which is crucial, but the clause “he’d see the value” and the phrase “well-kept farm.” Samson is setting us up, and she’s setting us up good and proper.
And when Percy Dunsmore takes an interest in the Moore farm, a slow-dawning nightmare begins to envelope John (and the reader). I talked above about the need for control. I’ve also heard it said that men have a biological need to be admired, and that this need ranks even higher than sex, food, and ESPN. If that is indeed the case, I think I now understand why the book clawed so insistently into my subconscious and refused to be dislodged.
Impotence—on a very basic level—is the main theme of this book. John Moore begins the tale admired, happy, and virile. He’s potent, in every sense of the word. His farm is fertile, his marriage is good. Even his kids think he’s the bomb (and like Slim Pickens, John’s happily riding along). But when Perly Dunsmore places John in his cross-hairs, everything changes. John can’t stop Dunsmore, he can’t stop Sheriff Gore. He can’t even stop the thugs Dunsmore and Gore recruit to carry out their gradual rape of the Moore farm. John is impotent in the truest sense of the word, and the reader wallows in this helplessness. In its own way, The Auctioneer is one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read.
Joan Samson only wrote one book. She died of cancer before she could finish her second. That’s incredibly sad, and it makes you wonder (selfishly, I guess) how many great stories she still had to tell.
But I can say with certainty that her one contribution to the field was a whopper. Read it if you haven’t. Then lock your doors and try to convince yourself you’re really in control of your life.