“The Devil in the Details”: History and Myth in Lee Klein’s JRZDVLZ, a review by Jesi Buell

“Whoever languishes in thoughtful reenactment
of the past falls prey to cruel beasts.” —Lee Klein

In his latest novel, Lee Klein introduces the Jersey Devil (JeRZey DeViLZ) as a sympathetic beast living across hundreds of years in the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey. The novel blends archival fact with longstanding myths, which serves to both amplify unbelievable aspects of American history as well as create an air of plausibility to the more incredible aspects of this story. It also implicitly reflects how history is the combination of both fact and myth. How history is its own fiction.

The central myth on which the story is built is the Leeds Devil; a chimera, part man and many parts animal. From his inception, he is enmeshed within the mythos of Benjamin Franklin, a business rival to his family’s almanac. Franklin uses his publication to besmirch the Leeds family and, in doing so, blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction. When the Devil is rejected at birth, he moves on the outskirts of society, uncertain of both his future as well as his origin. He resolves to understand himself the only way that seems possible—through how other people understand him. As the narrative progresses, the Devil becomes more ensnared in legend, ranging from:

–       the armonica
–       baseball
–       Wharton and the minting of the nickel
–       the Jukes family
–       witch hunts and virgin sacrifices
–       late-stage capitalism
–       a magical wedding dress that watches the sea

What is real and what is fake? It’s hard to say. Some elements are more obvious but, as I read, I found myself asking questions like:

  • Were the Jukes in New Jersey too or were they inspired by the famous eugenics case from New York?
  • Were the Umbrian girls real or inspired by the Salem Witch Trials? Or maybe more so by Ophelia as we see them like ondines blooming in the river?
  • What do we really know of Benjamin Franklin? How much of his words were ‘true’?

“Put thought before speech, the children
were taught, like horse and carriage.
Mouths were gates restraining wild animals:
release of one eased the release of others
until the world reverted to savagery.”

The most interesting element of this novel is this central theme of how fact is buttressed by fiction (and vice versa). It forces the reader to question how (hi/)stories are made and how our words make the intangible (the imagined and the opinion and the holy) come alive. As the Devil endures through these legends, he is also trying to understand his own story, one that is not fully in his control. Several times, the Devil questions if he really exists or if he is just another horror story created by a restless, fearful crowd. The Devil’s existence is almost completely defined by how others see him; the stories they create or attach to him:

“Forget Franklin’s thirteen commandments for moral perfection,
tracking the serpentine switchbacks of consciousness,
registering the existential arrhythmia of the heart,
the restlessness of the soul. Perhaps seeming human
only required two things: acquire possessions
and lose oneself among other people.
Can other people become a sort of heaven?
Maybe even devils become angels when they laugh together.”

While there were moments of anachronistic colloquialisms, overall this stylistic prose is engaging and believable as we follow the Devil in his struggle to understand where he fits into this world. JRZDVLZ will appeal to fans of Süskind’s Perfume and Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is a worthwhile trip into the mind of a monster; a sad, lovelorn path made familiar in its humanity:

“I was not the only one of my kind: all men were devils.
As humans evolved from clusters of cells to fish to their current form,
by some celestial or terrestrial spark that slowly yet ceaselessly
modified the dominant hominid,
I became the first step toward the species’ future.”

JRZDVLZ, by Lee Klein. Montclair, New Jersey: Sagging Meniscus Press, October 2017. 262 pages. $21.00, paper.

Jesi Buell is Editor-in-Chief of KERNPUNKT Press.

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