Book review: The Legend of Charlie Fish by Josh Rountree

(courtesy Tachyon Publications / cover by John Coulthart)

If you believe the adage that good things come in small packages then you are going to love the perfectly formed succinctness of Josh Rountree’s slim but powerful The Legend of Charlie Fish.

Set at the turn of the twentieth century with brief but narratively effective prologue and epilogues diversions to the year 1932, The Legend of Charlie Fish is one of those luminously good novellas that dance between densely compelling plotting & perfectly formed characterisation rooted in the trying grittiness of the real world and magically real elements that don’t detract from the realness but rather emphasises how it can affect people for the good and the bad.

Let’s start with the good because honestly for all its winningly dark Western overtones and its epic race for survival and frantic holding onto hope, The Legend of Charlie Fish celebrates how someone doing the right thing can have powerful consequences, both immediately and well down the track.

Floyd Betts, the man at the centre of this extraordinary but affectingly grounded tale, has had the sort of life than should predispose him to walling his life up from the inside and not lifting a finger to help anyone – with an emotionally negligent dad, a viciously sour aunt and a hometown full of people given over to meanness and bigotry, he should be the last person to help anyone.

We were different, and different was bad.

Hank and I [Nellie] set off down the road to home, and their hatred chased after us.

After all, no one helped him so why should he help others?

But Floyd is a good man, a very good man, his penchant for doing the right thing spurred on by a loving though now dead mother, his love of reading and an inner moral compass that doesn’t just know right from wrong, it practises it with a loving intensity.

It is what spurs him to take on two orphans when he has to return to his old nasty hometown for reasons he cannot avoid; Nellie and Hank have been left parentless after a despicably cruel act that not even magic could protect them from, and while Floyd’s aunt and the local cleric, “good” Christians all, treat them like leprous droppings, our goodhearted protagonist scoops them up, ostensibly at first just to give them a meal.

But they stay onboard in his wagon and soon Floyd discovers that eldest child Nellie can hear “whispering” which allows her to hear, in clear but not wholly distinct form, what people are thinking and feeling and to project recollections of what was and to sense what might be.

The daughter of a witch, she has the kind of powers which are both blessing and curse, but which give her an insight into the human soul which help her to know Floyd can be trusted, travelling snake oil salesman Fin and his henchman Kentucky Jim most certainly cannot and that they must save Charlie who, it turns out, is a man-sized sentient amphibian and who cannot be allowed to remain a captive of murderous Finn.

(courtesy official author site)

This wholly unique family, for that is most assuredly what they become form the beating heart of The Legend of Charlie Fish which is full to the brim of challenging life events, some more mortally wounding than others, but which always celebrate the power of doing the right thing and being on the right side of history.

Drawing without once feeling derivative on the substantial emotional weight of The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece about embracing the Other and being open to worlds and people beyond your own understanding (but, not, thankfully, heart) and with a keen eye on the justice of Westerns where people of good heart and standing stand victoriously, though not without some injury, against the darkest elements of the world, The Legend of Charlie Fish has so much substance at the heart of it that you marvel at how masterful a morality tale it is.

But, and this speaks to Rountree’s clearly demonstrated gift for writing, the novella never sinks beneath the weight of its evocation of the things that make us good and which sustain when the brutalist people around us trying to take what is not theirs in ways that can only damage and destroy unless they are opposed.

Rather it movingly weaves its beautifully rich and thoughtful core through a humanity which is both relatably grounded and magically different, granting the story a lightness of being that wears its weightier elements lightly and yet profoundly impactfully.

‘Listen, Nellie,’ she [Abigail] said. ‘I’m telling you this to say we aren’t required to live the story that’s expected. Our lives belong to us. We need only decide what we want from life and then do our best to make it happen.’

For all its darkness and strange, what really hits home is how powerful love can be.

Not the sort of love adored by cheap romantic tales and fleeting greeting card rhymes; rather the muscular kind that throws the pink and the pretty aside into the muck underfoot and gets in there and care and supports, unconditionally and without reserve and which preserves far more powerful than cruel and nasty men intent on nothing other than enriching themselves at the expense of others.

The family that Floyd, his landlady Abigail Elder, who has a darkening past of her own, Nellie, Hank and Charlie form may not be weird and bathed in magically real colours and sensibilities, but the love at the heart of it proves to be (mostly) even more powerful than the 1900 Great Storm of Galveston, Texas, a nightmarish feat of nature that levels much of the city and challenges our intrepid band, including Hank and his oversized revolver and outsized willingness to face down bullies, but which never wholly surmounts them.

With that kind of heart behind it, and a hugely powerful narrative heft that always cradles and cherishes the humanity at its heart, augmented by a magicality that is more real in its impact that much of the physical world around us, The Legend of Charlie Fish is a dark but hopeful gem that lives out its Western and fantasy influences with grit and wonder and an unfailing sense that while life can be terrible and some people even more so, that that is not the end of the story and that good and wondrous things can happen in awful circumstances to powerfully lasting effect.

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