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The truth is out there – ‘Nine Shiny Objects’

July 2, 2020
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America has always been fertile ground for those with … unconventional ideas. That fertility ebbs and flows, to be sure, with one of the high points – perhaps THE high point – being the middle of the 20th century. The odd energy of the post-war period manifested itself in a tendency for people to search for enlightenment in new ways. And once the notion of ETs and UFOs entered the picture, well – things got weird.

People didn’t understand … and people who don’t understand can be dangerous.

That weirdness and its generational aftermath, for those inside and outside alike, serve as the foundation of Brian Castleberry’s debut novel “Nine Shiny Objects” (Custom House, $27.99). This novel-in-stories of sorts takes a long look at the America of the latter half of the 20th century, viewing it through the lens of a short-lived fringe group of UFO fanatics and the traumatic fallout of the years following its collapse.

By following a variety of individuals via their connections to the group, we bear witness as the booming postwar years give way to the counterculture ‘60s, the hedonistic ‘70s and the go-go ‘80s. But even with the growing generational remove, all of the people we encounter bear the psychological repercussions springing from the too-brief life of that initial collective while also dealing with a changing America.

In June of 1947, a failed actor-turned-pool hustler named Oliver Barnville is directionless in Chicago. A lost soul, casting about for something – anything – that might give his life meaning. When he first sees the sensational headlines about the sighting of nine pulsing, moving lights in the sky over the Cascade Mountains. These lights were moving with purpose and at speeds that far exceeded any known aircraft. Oliver sees this story as a sign, and immediately sticks out his thumb and (literally) heads for the hills. Along the way, he meets an Idaho farmer named Saul Penrod and his family, making what was once a solitary quest into a different sort of journey – a journey in which some would follow while others would lead.

Thus are born the Seekers, a collective of outsiders and oddballs looking for something and willing to look to the sky in order to find it. These square pegs sought to eliminate the divisions among humans, eschewing commons prejudices with regards to ethnicity or gender or race – the sort of free thinking that was viewed with considerable suspicion by mainstream America. But when the Seekers’ efforts to wade into that mainstream take a tragic turn, the fracturing moment sends ripples through the years that follow. The horrible tragedy at its center impacts the futures of those who were there and the generations thereafter.

The ones we meet over the course of the ensuing decades are a disparate group: a scholar; a waitress; a traveling salesman; a paranoid radio host; a struggling poet; a hedonistic rock star; a painter; and a troubled teenager. We meet them all as the years pass, their connections to the Seekers’ utopian beginning and violent end tethering them all to one another in ways both overt and subtle. Through their individual stories, the larger narrative of what actually happened to the Seekers – and why – is told. And as that larger narrative is assembled, we also see American evolution, the changes in societal attitudes and ideologies, the slow swing of the political pendulum – writ large.

All of it in the afterglow of nine shiny objects.

“Nine Shiny Objects” is an intriguing work of fiction. Each of these pieces offers a compelling and sometimes heartbreaking character study, a look at how the same thing can hurt different people in different ways. Each of these people carries with them proof of a fundamental societal rot (though each views that proof in their own and occasionally oppositional way); that proof colors and infects their engagement with the world around them – usually to their detriment.

It’s also a reflection of how fearfulness regarding new ideas or somehow shifting the paradigm may take different forms, but is always lurking. There will always be those with unreasonable expectations on either side of the ideological divide; in a way, this book is about the fallout when those expectations are inevitably not met.

Goldsberry shows a remarkable restraint for a debut author in his slow, quiet distribution of pieces of the larger puzzle; the primary connections our changing character perspectives and leaps forward in time are obvious, but there are myriad secondary and tertiary connections as well that are fascinating to watch unfurl.

The depth and intricacy of the plotting is really something to see, connections on connections on connections that spider out from our titular objects in a manner that cleverly evokes the sorts of red-thread connection webs that we associate with conspiracy theory. And with so many of our narrators rendered unreliable by their own connections and biases, well … the truth might be out there, but good luck figuring it out.

“Nine Shiny Objects” is a thoughtful and thought-provoking novel, a portrait of American culture’s ongoing battle between idealism and cynicism. It’s also a story of connections (the ones we see and the ones we don’t) that offers a half-century-long look at what your beliefs can bring you – and what those beliefs might ultimately cost.

Last modified on Thursday, 02 July 2020 07:44

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