In an age of the current political climate where the idea of morality and hate is taking on a skewed vision of itself, the proponent of finding a way to fight against a certain level of tyranny even in a structure of metaphor is an interesting exercise. In “Creatures Of Want & Ruin” [Molly Tanzer/John Joseph Adams & Mariner Books/352pgs], the lead character of Ellie, a bootlegger but ultramodern for the prohibition era she lives in, rallies against people’s expectations of her and the notions of class that revolve in her circles as she simply tries to be happy. At home, her father feels a sense of loathing for himself because he was injured in the war and feels he can longer effectively lead the family. Her brother Lester has polio but is training to be a doctor and yet the father belittles him for not being manly. Ellie’s boyfriend Gabriel is an artful type but truly loves her despite his slightly unusual sexual appetites which adds another layer to the proceedings. The structure of the book involves a would-be threat in the form of spores and mushrooms that is threatening to take over and destroy Long Island. It is not really an apocalyptic progression per se but in true form it is the work of demons under the tutelage of man bent on cleansing for the good of the island. The main antagonist is a would-be pastor named Hunter who has summoned a demon to help him manipulate and cleanse Amityville and further more the island of its sins. It alters his followers through the ironic use of tainted liquor turning them into brainwashed automatons who think everything he tells them is truth. Ellie along with a corrupt but trustworthy cop Jones, her second lover Rocky and two bootleggers who are black (and thereby targets of a would be Klan) set the stakes high. The character that balances the story is Fin, a young woman swirled in a Gatsby-type structure who feels disjointed from her life of wanting nothing. It is like Daisy in the famous Fitzgerald novel but one who takes control of her own destiny though through her backstory. She seems fated to do it. She succeeds where Ellie cannot but she could not take the necessary steps without Ellie. The imagery in the book is good but it is the idea of understanding identity versus living it and also the underlying sociological commentary that makes the book both intrinsic and a fun read though the stakes never take a rough edgy feeling in the way they could. The one shocking turn of events which results in a chilling murder should have more power than it has but that might have to do with writing structure. “Creatures Of Want & Ruin” is a effective social commentary set in a different era that brings all too specifically the ideas that face us today.
By Tim Wassberg