It is the voice that tells the tale --- the madman's tale --- which
makes John Katzenbach's tale such a winner. Almost from the first
sentence --- heck, the first word --- Katzenbach infuses this fine
novel with a sense of unease, a sense that, while malice is not
present, all is not right. The tale is told through the voice of
Francis Petrel, whose illness may be cured, but that does not mean
he is well.
THE MADMAN'S TALE is not meant to be read on the bus, in a doctor's
waiting room, or places of similar hubbub. This is a narrative that
demands your undivided attention without distraction. It commences
with the interruption of Petrel's post-treatment existence by a
voluntary, invitational return to the now-shuttered Western State
Hospital. Petrel's day-to-day life is a simple one, consisting of
walking the streets under the influence of a medicational regimen
(the description of which, while short, is worth reading over and
over) and residing in a small, income subsidized apartment,
dependent upon the public dole, the kindness of strangers and the
occasional charity of his sisters.
Petrel's return to the now-shuttered Western State Hospital some 20
years after his treatment (residency? incarceration?) at the
facility is not without purpose. There is a proposal to raze the
buildings on the grounds of the former mental hospital and to give
the property some high-end residential gentrification. Petrel, as a
former patient, is invited to a symposium presented for the purpose
of presenting and advancing the plan. Petrel, as he is quick to
tell us, is not there to listen to speeches; he is there to visit
the grounds he came to know too well. His brief visit awakens
memories, never really slumbering, of his treatment there and what
occurred at that place and time, events that have repercussions
into the present day.
Returning to his sparsely furnished apartment, Petrel begins to
tell his tale of what occurred during the time of his treatment.
The medium by which he begins writing the narrative that
constitutes the bulk of A MADMAN'S TALE is one of the first of many
indications that Petrel's problems remain significant, if not
immediately obvious to a world that regards him as merely unable to
effectively function. His memoirs, which dip and swirl around his
fellow patients and the dark and terrible events that involved them
all, take on the semblance of a quiet nightmare from which Petrel
has yet to escape. His account of the discovery of the desecrated
body of a young nurse-trainee is particularly chilling. The reader
senses it coming, but it is no less frightening. Even with the
sense of foreboding that permeates THE MADMAN'S TALE, one can never
fully anticipate what will happen from page to page, practically to
the end of the work.
Katzenbach, as he has demonstrated time and again in the past, is a
quiet stylistic marvel. He can do more to establish an atmosphere
of unease in a single paragraph than many writers can do in entire
pages or chapters. It is no surprise that THE MADMAN'S TALE has
been optioned for development as a film. Think lots of shadows,
lots of grays, and lots of silent heart attacks following the
viewing, not to mention the reading.
The late Shirley Jackson used to do this so well, in terms of
creating a dark atmosphere in which neither the reader nor the
narrator knew precisely what would happen next. In THE MADMAN'S
TALE, Katzenbach finishes the work that Jackson left undone.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 7, 2011