Illustration by Gervasio Gallardo
Peter S. Beagle’s first novel was published in 1960, and written when he was 19 years old. I discovered it in this paperback edition when it came out in 1969. It and Beagle’s second fantasy novel, “The Last Unicorn” made me a fan, and I’ve been enjoying his work ever since.
I hadn’t read this one since I was about 18 years old myself. I didn’t remember any of the characters clearly except the raven, who talks and has a dry, sarcastic wit. The raven has some of the best lines in the book. The setting is a large graveyard in Long Island near enough to Manhattan to have a subway line next to it. It’s fenced and in active use, though of course much of it is filled with graves and monuments from past burials. It’s a reasonably posh place for a graveyard. Mr. Rebeck, we learn, has been living here secretly for about 20 years after finding life in the outside world too much to take. He’s careful, and manages this with the help of the raven, who brings him enough food to keep him going. Mr. Rebeck has an unusual ability: he can see and speak with the recently deceased. He considers himself a sympathetic friend to those spirits he meets, helping them make the transition to the next life. Some ghosts are stubborn, though, like Michael Morgan, who is determined to hang on to every shred of humanity he can for as long as he can. Michael claims he was murdered by his wife, and he’s angry about it. When he meets the ghost of another recent burial, Laura, they develop a strange relationship that begins with friendship, but later becomes a kind of love. Meanwhile, a grieving widow, Mrs. Klapper befriends Mr. Rebeck, and the two of them have their own odd relationship. She is not even put off when she learns the truth about where he lives. It seems Mr. Rebeck might have a chance for a new life if he can just get up the nerve to walk out of the cemetery, something he’s been unable to do since he fled there.
This book meanders like the characters, as they walk endlessly, or sit and chat through much of the story, and there’s lots and lots of talking, but the young author shows his talent with the characters and dialogue, so the book seldom drags. Mrs. Klapper’s life outside the cemetery is also explored, and that adds to the atmosphere and depth of the story. There’s a trial going on for Michael Morgan’s wife, and though we don’t see it, the raven keeps everyone informed. Later there are some surprising revelations, a good deal of overwrought emotion, and a pretty satisfying resolution for nearly everyone. It’s not always a page-turner, but Beagle’s writing skill kept me entertained again during this read.