Do you remember where the glory in Beowulf is? It is out amid peril in strange lands pitted against monsters and the mothers of monsters. It isn’t in the warm mead hall with roasted meats and the comfort of jesters and wenches. (From Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere.)
Let me tell you somethin’ true, people: Poe Ballantine is the best American writer alive that you’ve definitely never heard of. His new memoir-true crime book (& totally awesomely-titled) Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere absolutely blew me out of my shorts.
That September I was so sick of living in a hot box and working in a greasy hole and being shouted at for $4.75 an hour and having novels blow up on me that I took several tiny trips in the hopes that I would be killed in a car wreck.
I very rarely read memoirs or biographies – I think the books by Keith Richards and Patti Smith are about it for the last five years – and I wouldn’t even categorize Poe’s book as such, except for the fact that he was such a part of the story he felt compelled to chronicle that his own life became a backdrop for the book he crafted.
Poe spent a good portion of his early adult life floating at the edges of the world, wandering the countryside, never settling in one place or putting any roots in the ground. He published some work, taught some classes, flipped some burgers, and was more-or-less suicidal at times. When he met his future wife in Mexico, it wasn’t the sort of watershed moment that put his life on a new and more fulfilling track, but it seems that something altered in his approach to living life. Zigged him when he had been zagging. And when their son Tom was born, those roots finally dug down into the earth for Poe.
Love & Terror essentially begins as a chronicle of Ballantine’s life just before he met his wife Christina and their subsequent years living, loving, & fighting together in Chadron, Nebraska. Chadron is a small town of just a few thousand people in northwestern Nebraska that Poe discovered in his rambling early life – for whatever reason, the town drew him back into its orbit later on down the road and ultimately became, essentially, the centerpiece to this book.
Nestled inside that centerpiece – within Poe’s love of his adopted hometown (he was actually born & raised here in San Diego) and its inhabitants – is the icy core: the mysterious disappearance and gruesome death of Poe’s neighbor, Steven Haataja. This soon becomes a tale of obsession – Poe’s inquisitive, journalistic nature leads him down a path to discover what really happened to his neighborly acquaintance. Unsatisfied – as are most residents of Chadron – in the official cause of death being a suicide, Poe takes it upon himself to work the fringes of the case in an effort to uncover the truth. He’s no detective, mind you – just a guy living in a small town who’s familiar with its eccentricities, its nooks & crannies, secret places, and the personalities within.
Ballantine has long been in a sort of self-imposed anonymity – writing essays and short fiction to just enough critical acclaim to keep the fires stoked, but not enough to put him on the radar of your average reader. After wandering the country for his first 40-odd years – including spending his formative years here in San Diego – Poe settled in the tiny northwest Nebraska town of Chadron. He married a Mexican woman, had a son, waxed the floors of the Safeway, and continued to write as much as possible. He was in the midst of working on a novel when his neighbor, Steven Haataja, disappeared one cold December night.
Ballantine’s prose is crisp, vibrant, very funny, and painfully honest at every turn. More than just a stale true crime account, Poe bares his own soul in and around his amateur quest to solve the mystery of his neighbor’s fate. His marriage is extremely rocky, his young son is possibly autistic (although laugh-out-loud hilarious), he can’t seem to make a full-time living as a writer, and there seems to be no clear answer as to what happened to Haataja, even after his body is discovered. The local police made a mess of the investigation, ruled the death a suicide, and left nearly every stone in Chadron unturned. Poe, unable and unwilling to accept this assessment, spent the next six years trying to uncover the truth – and put his findings into a book. This incredible, unusual gem of a book.
So, I implore the people of Poe’s original hometown of San Diego to embrace him back into our thin literary folds. We should be proud that he sprang from our irrigated soil and jealous of Chadron, Nebraska for drawing him in to its high plains orbit. He is an astoundingly talented writer – one of America’s most underappreciated, to be sure – and should be a favorite literary son of our fair city.
It is really the sharp, incisive prose, unwavering wit, and brutal honesty of Poe that drives this book forward. This is bare-bones journalism cloaked in a memoir. At some point I realized that there may not be a neat little ending for the Haataja case – there were just too many unanswered questions that Poe could not find the answers to. Being sure of something doesn’t necessarily make the universe fall into alignment, after all. But this book is a testament to the fact that he does not give up – and indeed, the case remains open, at least in the eyes of the residents of Chadron, Nebraska.
One last thing – documentary filmmaker Dave Jannetta has been working on a film about Haataja’s death, based on Ballantine’s book. Check the trailer: