V.S. Naipaul said of the writing of Vladimir Nabokov: "It's bogus, calling attention to itself. Americans do that. All those beautiful sentences. What are they for?" James Scott has been compared, justifiably, to Michael Ondaatje and Cormac McCarthy. But his debut novel, The Kept, as bleak as McCarthy and as lush as Ondaatje, seems at times an assemblage of beautiful sentences without purpose.
Set in the sunless chill of fin-de-siècle upstate New York, the novel opens with a massacre. Teenager Caleb has seen all his siblings and his father murdered by three assailants. Traumatized and jumpy, Caleb then mistakenly shoots his purported mother Elspeth, but not fatally. Thus begins the pair's often poignant quest to find those responsible. Eventually it's learned that this seemingly random attack was motivated by sterile midwife Elspeth's having stolen all her children from her clients. It may not be credible that the retribution for this would be to kill those same children, but there's no debating Caleb's indignation, even after he learns the truth.
In the meantime, Elspeth impersonates a man to get work preparing ice for sale, while Caleb befriends a golden-hearted prostitute and some other outlandish, McCarthy-esque types. Scott expends a lot of gunpowder and has characters quote the Bible in solemn tones, but to compensate for the lack of narrative force the language is made to sing like Ondaatje's.
To be fair, McCarthy's novels aren't heavy on plot. Instead they depict Americans adrift, beholden in equal measure to sanctimony and barbarism, everyone homeless and unknown. (This is a theme of Ondaatje's too, on an international backdrop.) Elspeth's wish to manufacture a family and Caleb's loyalty to false kin both point to a very American desperation for normalcy and purpose amidst the moral degeneracy of life on civilization's fringes. Both characters thus attain a fragile nobility, Elspeth sometimes recalling the formidable matriarch Addie of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Whether the reader cares is another matter.
And this recalls Naipaul's dig at Nabokov. The Kept is a well-written debut showcasing the kind of disciplined, often willfully spare but treacly prose taught in the writing programs filling Scott's biography. It is violent and mock-somber in the grand American manner. But as Gertrude Stein once chided Hemingway, when presented with his story about a sordid backwoods sexual assault, it may paint a picture. But would you want to hang it on your wall?