Darkness at Noon:
Retracing Al Kenner’s Domestic Despair
by Derek Harmening
Marc Dugain, “Avenue of the Giants”
2014, 288 pages, softcover, $17
“I think a lot of people write because they don’t get support from their family. Worse still, it’s often their family that’s the root of all their troubles.” –Al Kenner
Einstein is believed to have had an IQ of somewhere around 160. He earned a Nobel Prize for his work in theoretical physics and is immortalized by his theory of relativity as well as the mass-energy equivalence formula, E = mc2.
Edmund Kemper is sixty-five years old. He lives in Vacaville, Calif., among the prisoners of the California Medical Facility. He’ll serve life imprisonment without parole for the murders of ten, including his mother and paternal grandparents. He’s 6’9” and weighs over 300 pounds. He has an IQ of around 140.
French novelist Marc Dugain’s “The Avenue of the Giants” is a fictionalized account of the life and crimes of Edmund Kemper. His story is related through the first-person narrative of Al Kenner, a troubled young man growing up (and growing resentful) in 1960s Sierra Nevada.
Originally published by Gallimard in 2012, “Avenue” was translated from the French by Howard Curtis and reissued by Europa Editions in June 2014. It’s vicious and uncompromising and, given the present volatility of the American political and social landscape, its integration seems aptly timed.
At the novel’s outset, an incarcerated, 63-year-old Kenner meets with a timid, almost worshipful woman—Susan—who visits him regularly in prison, bringing along books for him to review. Al has grown tired of that, though; now, he wants to write his own book. An autobiographical novel. His life story. We readers are offered that life story, with the distinct warning that by the end, we may not be able to accept what Al has to tell us.
“The percentage of born killers is very small. All the others are just paying back society for what’s been done to them. And when I say society, I mean the family in particular.” –Al Kenner
Al’s criminal life begins the day he shoots his grandparents. It’s the same day JFK was assassinated, and Al’s momentous actions make a pebble’s splash, comparatively. Still—for him, it’s enormous. It’s catharsis for a young lifetime’s worth of oppression.
Al relates the story of his parents’ once-bright prospects: his father, a Vietnam war hero, his mother, pregnant with their first child—Al’s older sister. But as the years passed, his father settled into a menial job as an electrician and sought refuge from the memories of war by hunting and playing poker with his fellow vets. Al’s mother, angry at the thought of stagnation, grew resentful, and that resentment manifested itself in the form of alcoholism, insults, emasculation, belittlement: “If I’d known I was going to marry a cry baby, always mooning over his dead buddies, I wouldn’t have come anywhere near you…. I wouldn’t have given you three children, I wouldn’t have sacrificed my ambitions.”
Those childhood years were formative. Forced to sleep in the cellar, next to a gas boiler, Al understood the boiler’s flames to be an intimation of his own proximity to hell.
As punishment for misbehavior, his sister would electrocute him with a transformer’s current.
Age eleven. Waiting for the school bus on a freezing winter morning. Forbidden to wear hat, gloves, or a lined jacket. His skin grew raw. On the hottest days of summer, he’d work to exhaustion.
In his mother’s estimate, these rituals were good for him. They’d help make him a man, not the “big fat fairy” his father seemed to want him to become.
Al’s father, disapproving but weak of spirit, looked on passively.
domesticity. n. dō-ˌmes-ˈti-sə-tē.
Life inside a home; the activities of a family or of the people who share a home.
Al’s parents separate. He stays with his father. Unnerved by Al’s instability, his father again sends him away. He ends up with his grandparents, where the tyrannical comportment of his mother is just as evident in Al’s grandmother. He hates her for imposing geographical restrictions on him, for the way she berates his grandfather, for the way his grandfather accepts it, for the way her voice screeches when she calls Al in from the fields.
Recovery. On turning himself in, Al is sent to Atascadero State Hospital, where he befriends Dr. Leitner. To Leitner, Al is neither sentimental nor evasive. He is positively insistent that he is in his right mind. Not delusional, not paranoid, not schizophrenic—simply tired of life as the gum beneath one’s shoe. It’s a matter-of-fact series of chapters. Even Leitner, who accepts Al on Al’s own terms, connects dots with feverish intensity, hoping in some small way to legitimize Al’s actions, to help him observe empathy. “Your reason was altered by the way your family destroyed your emotional center” (105). His one condition, on recommending that Al be reintegrated into society, is that he never again come into contact with his mother. Al is released. But mother, of course, is like Chekhov’s gun.
The Avenue of the Giants, an old alignment of U.S. Route 101 now maintained as Route 254, is a scenic highway in Northern California. At 31.6 miles long, it winds through Humboldt Redwoods State Park, whose towering redwoods can exceed 300 feet. Their height and proximity produce what is known as the “darkness at noon” effect.
“Right now I’m getting to the last part of the book. And I’m not sure yet how to handle it. I’m afraid even readers who’ve been with me up until then will reject the book at that point.” –Al Kenner
Literature has given us its fair share of predators’ perspectives. The manipulative Humbert, the sociopathic Patrick Bateman, the retributive Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. Still, Al Kenner seems to offer something new to the oeuvre. An unwavering attention to his own culpability, perhaps: “Dr. Leitner, it makes me sick that I wasn’t sent to prison. They simply dismissed me with the wave of a hand, like I was some poor kid who wasn’t responsible for what he did.” His frankness: expressing his susceptibility to boredom, lamenting the lack of intelligence in others, his intense fear of violent altercations, his utter remorselessness. We don’t turn the book’s final pages feeling anything less than horror at Al’s resolution to his metastasizing illness. Though we know he’s telling his story from within prison, and that he’s been there for many years, we’re not equipped to understand why until Al deems it so.
We empathize; we’re shocked; we must go back and analyze the conditions of our empathy. We’re even tempted to reject that empathy, to pretend we never felt it in the first place. But we can’t do that. We’re too invested in Al’s torment.
And so, what are we left with? A French novelist composing a starkly American novel, its own title evocative of the mighty Redwoods of California—trees whose trunks are large enough to hollow out tunnels so cars may pass through. An image as American as the golden arches or the cursive script of Coca-Cola. The story of mental illness—as well as our increasingly alarming inability (and, in many cases, desire) to recognize, diagnose, treat, and prevent—has become a distinctly relevant American topic of late. “Avenue” is about a serial killer, sure: someone whose actions are defined by method, repetition, and time. But one need only look at the ubiquitous shootings of the past thirty years to understand that mass violence of every variety has roots in self-loathing, fear of rejection, or familial abuse. When it doesn’t, its roots may instead be psychotic or psychopathic—a reaction to paranoia, delusions of grandeur, narcissism, or lack of empathy.
But this inconveniences us. Paralysis by analysis. Too many possibilities, not enough black-and-white. We’d rather compartmentalize.
It’s society’s collective, primal instinct to either: 1) dismiss mass murderers as evil, despicable, and thus unworthy of any attention whatsoever; or 2) to tidily categorize them as mentally ill and, in doing so, absolve ourselves of any responsibility save judgment. To empathize makes us feel as though we accept, we tolerate. And so we steadfastly refuse, condemning without understanding and thus passively contribute to the never-ending cycle of violence.
“It’s all a question of knowing how far to go with reality. Fiction is reality. Why would people read novels if they didn’t bring us closer to real life? But if you use too much reality in fiction, you get further away from it because reality isn’t reality.” –Al Kenner
At the very least, “Avenue of the Giants” deigns to understand a human being who is easily and understandably labeled a monster. But Al Kenner (and Edmund Kemper) are still living, breathing humans whose actions—however horrific—have impetus of some sort. If the general goal of all literature is to enlighten, why not attempt to dissect a subject many of us are too uncomfortable to stomach, let alone objectively discuss? Aside from being a tightly-composed, razor-sharp narrative that thrills from its opening pages, Dugain has challenged us to take away something of value from a narrator who readily accepts that he’s destined for hell. “I know why I write,” Kenner says. “I just want to reconnect with the rest of the human race.”
Be appalled. Be irate. Be disgusted. But then think about a childhood winter with no gloves.
As a country, we’re on the cusp. In forty years, we’ve replaced Vietnam with Iraq, Vietcong with ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Domestic race riots, failing public schools, whole chasms separating the upper and lower class. Televised executions, unarmed teens shot dead, passenger planes shot from skies. We want peace, we want equality, but we live and breathe a reality of self-preservation over all.
To witness someone who struggles beneath the weight of self-loathing, inadequacy, abuse, and the technicolor, death-saturated media come out the other side with little regard for human life—it’s unnerving, but not altogether alien.
I would have liked for everything to start all over again from zero, for everything to be wiped out, blank page.
No, I’m not crazy. No, I don’t have psychosis.
Don’t ask a guy who’s driven to madness not to defend himself.
Derek Harmening works as a production editor at Phoenix International Publications, Inc., and has most recently reviewed for Kirkus Indie. He has written for the Chicago Artists Resource website, Gapers Block, The Curbside Splendor Blog, Newcity, and the Quivering Pen.