Author: Robert Dunbar
Published: Book Margins, Inc. (1989)
Hey, do you like camping in the woods? Well, chances are you might not like it so much after you get done reading this novel. Robert Dunbar's debut novel manages to build the vivid scenery of the New Jersey pine barrens leaf by leaf, limb by limb. And it's not a picturesque piece of wilderness akin to a scene from Bambi, either--this is a creepy, swampy, infested piece of woodland that God apparently gave up on.
If there's anything more depressing than the scenery in this book, it has to the cast of characters who reside in and around the pine barrens. Athena is the main character, a widowed paramedic with a disfigured leg and an autistic young son, and she is just a country song brought to life as you read her tale. She and the rag-tag ambulance crew she works with are disparate, but united in a malaise because of the unsavory surroundings they share.
Jersey takes a beating from comedians as a crap place to live, but Dunbar paints such a vividly bleak picture of this area that it's a wonder Jersey is let off so easy by those comics.
But the real targets of disdain aren't really Athena and the other almost-shamed citizens of the area, it's the "pineys" and the rumored beasts that roam the feral wilderness. The pineys are a collection of Appalachian-esque people so inbred and ill-omened they are basically cut off from the rest of the world, both by choice and by circumstance. And the thing killing people in the Pines is something else altogether--the Jersey Devil as it's known locally.
Why anyone would want to go hiking and camping in those woods is beyond me, as some random campers that appear early in the novel wander through a stench-filled frontier only to wind up meeting gruesome ends, it is beyond me. Had Dunbar written the brochure for the area, they'd have likely opted for Coney Island.
The story builds the tension slow, like a kettle of cold water on the boil. The people are killed and maimed in fits and bursts, while we at the same time are immersed in the dejected lives of Athena, her son, and a few others as they struggle with their own problems and the increasing threat of something in the Pines. And while the suspense and the struggles feel real, even with the supernatural influences surrounding the Devil legend, there is something about the mood of the book that pressed down on my mind like a black cloud. I didn't find myself really rooting for any characters and felt more like a voyeur spying on the lives of people more apt to appear on a "Jerry Springer" episode.
It's certainly a well-written work with some spine-tingling scenes when the monster in the woods starts stalking its victims, and the dialogue is doled out with a very organic feel, thanks to the heavy twang of many residents and the conversations among the ambulance crew. The folks looking for a quick, pulpy read, however, may walk away disappointed because this book spends more time establishing characters and mood than reveling in gore and body counts. While I personally didn't love it, I did like it--and after reading this book I'm glad I don't live near the pine barrens of New Jersey.