Robert Hellenga’s ‘Snakewoman of Little Egypt’ mesmerizes

From (Cleveland, OH):
By Tricia Springstubb

Some writers — and Jonathan Franzen comes to mind — know so much about so many things, reading them feels a bit like being repeatedly run over by a top-of-the-line Mack truck. You’re so powerful and amazing! a reader wants to cry. But please, can you give it a rest for one minute?

Enter Robert Hellenga, author of “The Sixteen Pleasures” and “Philosophy Made Simple.” His new novel takes on, for starters, life among African pygmies, how to play a mean harmonica and why some squirrels dis rattlesnakes. There’s an inside glimpse of a women’s prison, and a murder trial worthy of an ace genre writer.

But Hellenga, who teaches at Knox College in rural Illinois, is a humble writer with a quiet sense of humor, and his respect for the intricacies of his characters and the world at large is contagious.

Jackson Jones is a professor of anthropology who misses life in the Congo, where he did extensive fieldwork on the Mbuti. He’s back in southern Illinois, recovering from illness, and not sure what comes next. “It wasn’t that he thought he knew everything. It was that he didn’t have any idea of what else he wanted to know.”

Into that opening steps Sunny, the beautiful young niece of a deceased friend. She’s just been released from prison for shooting her husband, Earl, pastor of the rattlesnake-handling Church of the Burning Bush With Signs Following. Anyone creeped out by Crotalus horridus horridus, be warned: you don’t want to read this book.

Before long, Jackson and Sunny are lovers. She becomes a college student, and he undertakes what he thinks is an academic study of the church. When he observes a wild, music-rocked service featuring a two-headed snake, the social scientist in him tries “to distinguish between ecstatic vocalizations and states of dissociation.”

Meanwhile Sunny, eager to leave both God and her ex behind, grows away from Jackson, breaking his heart. A strange but convincing camaraderie develops between him and old Earl, and boundaries blur. Sex and religion can cause a heap of trouble.

Catfish wrangling, the history of the timpani, how to dress a deer — I’ll admit to skipping a few short sections, including instructions for planting a radio transmitter under a snake’s skin. Yet the story never flags. A gun appears on the book’s first page, and there’s no question it’ll get fired. Tying up the strands of a story this complex is tricky, but the ending feels both inevitable and moving.