Meeting great expectations

The Baltimore Sun


By Dan Simmons

Little, Brown and Co. / 784 pages / $26.99

Everything seems skimpy these days. Things look pinched, narrow, watered down, washed out, choked off. So much seems to be shrinking: hope, energy, dollars, jobs. Even the horizon looks as if it were left in the dryer too long. We're trimming our sails, hedging our bets. Scrimping. Saving. Hunkering down.

Then along comes Dan Simmons and his new novel, Drood, a big, hairy, smelly, loud, messy behemoth of a book, and suddenly, all that smallness, all that caution, looks silly. Simmons' richly imagined chronicle of the last days of Charles Dickens is being dropped on the world at a fortuitous time - just when we need to be bounced out of our doldrums. Toward that end, Drood is like a belch at a tea party: At first it seems rude and inappropriate, but then you realize that it's the first honest sign of life you've encountered in a good long while. It's refreshing. Invigorating.

Simmons specializes in Jumbo Lit, in writing books so big that, as an anonymous British critic once described similarly enormous tomes, they're fit to "stun a pig." In The Terror (2007), his sensational seam-buster of a saga about a real-life Arctic expedition in the late 1840s, Simmons showed just what a brilliant author can do, if you give him enough elbow room. He used the largest, starkest canvas in the world - the bewildering blankness of the mostly uninhabited vastness of the planet's northernmost regions - to paint with the deepest colors and explore the most intense human emotions: love, hate, fear, envy, hunger, lust, ambition. The paperback version of Terror runs to almost 1,000 pages, but once you're locked in harness with the steady march of Simmons' prose, you won't notice the gargantuan length. You'll be too enmeshed in the grim ordeals of the hapless men on the doomed British ships Terror and Erebus.

Simmons, best known for science fiction novels such as Hyperion (1989) but excelling as well in the mystery and horror genre, was born in Peoria, Ill. Maybe that's why he's so comfortable with big novels. A city boy probably couldn't get his arms around the endlessness that Simmons loves to explore. It takes a village to raise a child - but perhaps it takes a prairie to turn that child into a great novelist.

Drood is narrated by Wilkie Collins, the writer who briefly rivaled Dickens for the mantle of most-beloved scribe in mid-19th-century London. Collins' jealousy of, and contempt for, Dickens wafts from these pages like the stench from a London sewer - and that was a mighty stench indeed, as readers of Drood will discover. While the novel is an intricate and serpentine psychological tale, spiced with its narrator's lies and self-deceptions and growing drug addiction and casual treacheries, it is also an excellent primer on the crude state of public hygiene roughly a century and a half ago. Just as readers of The Terror learned a lot about varieties of Arctic ice - pack ice, drift ice, brash ice, sludge ice and pancake ice, for starters - readers of Drood quickly become familiar with waste disposal in 1860s England:

"Shops and industry shoveled out tons of hides, flesh, boiled bones, horse meat, cat gut, cow hooves and heads and guts, and other organic detritus every day," Collins reports. "It all went to the Thames or accumulated in giant piles along the banks of the Thames, waiting to go into the water. ... Even carriage horses - many of whom would soon die and add to the problem - vomited from the smell."

But as bad as that sounds, it's no match for what's brewing beneath the same streets: a dank network of ghastly caverns peopled by pimps and prostitutes and rats and opium addicts - and, Dickens believes, a mysterious fellow named Drood. As Collins tries to solve the riddle of Drood's identity and the secret of his strange power over Dickens, the latter is planning to write the biography of the inscrutable Drood. The real-life Dickens, of course, left an unfinished manuscript at the time of his death - bearing the beguiling title "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

Simmons blends the facts of the Dickens and Collins biographies with graphic details about life in Victorian London. The result is a spellbinding tale, bold and sly and so steeped in the filigree of this era that it seems to have been written just after a seance during which both authors were present - and more than happy to supply details.

Most of all, Drood is big - big in size, big in scope, big in audacity and verve. At 784 pages, it's a vivid reminder that while our paychecks and credit limits may be shrinking, our imaginations can handle some grandiosity. In fact, we ought to revel in it.

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