Twilight of the Idiots gathers together short stories about people who take wrong turns in life and who suffer or even die because of it. No matter how hard they try, opportunities for love and happiness slip away. The title of the collection is a play on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, itself a decadent twist on Richard Wagner’s opera, Twilight of the Gods (Götterdämmerung).
A sense of moral and spiritual dissipation defines Peterson’s work here. Unlike his novel Gideon’s Confession (reviewed for CBR here), there is no humorous reprieve or hope; there is only suicide, murder, or at best emotional failure. The author has set himself a true challenge in imagining these desperately tragic lives. Readers will be shaken by the troubled relations between ordinary, mostly uncultured people.
“Romance and Respect” tells of a woman’s entanglement with a violent man. The woman leaves her listener (and the reader) feeling frustrated and uneasy as it becomes clear that she is ill-equipped to make good decisions. If there is wisdom in suffering, it requires a level of self-awareness that seems to elude her. “Rita’s Last Crazy Idea” presents a similar narrative from the man’s point of view. A free-spirited woman seems to lure the main male character on a dangerous boat ride. As he eyes “the skin of the woman underneath the bikini,” he claims to “hear the question she really asks: not if we can do it, but if I have enough lust for her to row her out there.” His misinterpretation is alarming, even more so given his reasonable tone of voice.
Other stories cover unwitnessed, unpunished crimes. Only the fiction writer, by strength of imagination, can traverse time and space to observe such cruelty perpetrated without consequence. The best of these stories, “Golfer’s Bog,” is a ghoulish, unforgettable account of the murder of a young boy. Malevolence and despair mingle with appalling nonchalance. The boy narrates his own death, remarking, “When it was all over, I remember thinking, I don’t know, it just seems like I shouldn’t have been so easy to kill.”
A few stories focus on the early loss of innocence. But more haunting is Peterson’s examination of a lifetime of disillusionment, especially in the diptych formed by “The Visit,” about a mother who visits her son, and “It Comes with Death, Such Feelings,” which covers her death years later. Both focus on the son’s alienation from his mother, a woman suffering from “life fatigue.” She seems to hide this side of herself from everyone else—or perhaps he misunderstood her all along. The true cause of their discord is never certain. One has to admire the author’s refusal to provide a satisfying rapprochement. As sometimes happens, regret and slow burning resentment here win out over all other feelings.
Most of these ordinary “idiots” (or young people) can barely fathom the possibility of misperception, though there are a few exceptions. In “Jacob’s Cheek,” the endearingly resilient main character has created “the most successful porta-potty business in town.” He has won himself stability and wealth despite his traumatic childhood. Yet no one believes it was traumatic, and this bothers him. To his credit, he ponders the fallibility of his own mind. “Did it really happen like this? Was his childhood really this oppressive?” If so, then he is alone with the burden of memory; if it was not oppressive, he must live with his delusion. Either way, human mental faculties seem horribly flawed, as much a source of pain as anything else.
Despite these scenes of death and dismal existence, somehow Chicago itself comes across, now and then, in a nostalgic light, whether a character is paddling out on the lake or staggering down Rush Street at night. But bitter psychological realities prevail. The heartache of ordinary lives is not softened with quirky humor or a wealth of local detail, as they are for instance in Stuart Dybeck’s The Coast of Chicago. Twilight of the Idiots, written in concise unembellished prose, focuses on people who lack any particular brilliance, insight, or wit. Some are Nietzscheans without Nietzsche, while others are tragedies without an audience. But Peterson sees each crisis through, if not quite judging, then bearing witness.
A final word must be said about the high physical quality and presentation of the book, which was published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. The cover features a striking photograph of a Düreresque rodent, crouched low, eyes open wide. One would not guess from its face that its torso is hollowed out, as if bitten in two, internal organs splayed open for inspection. The creature has suffered a staggering injury, yet it still lives. The image is from a massive outdoor mural by ROA in Chicago (photographed by Peterson). It effectively complements the arresting stories within, toying with perceptions of scale in regard to personal trauma.
April 2015, Chicago Center for Literature and Photography
$14.99, paperback, 212 pages
—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton