I wrote a book. It took me ten years. Quite a bit happened while I was writing it. Most of that stuff, if not all, was thrown into it.
Here’s a brief synopsis: The life of a young boy takes a strikingly odd turn when his own father, in a drunken stupor, accidently beheads him–and he does not die. From there the little boy with no head leaves his absurdly real life for adventures of epic proportions to become captain of the infamous yet mysterious vessel, The Ciardha. Following his transitions from child to adult, he encounters people, bodies, and events that all seem to be pointing in two different directions at once: everywhere and nowhere.
If your head is screwed on tight enough, and you’re ready: Go Here!
Here is a magnificent and much appreciated review. I will be forever indebted to Adam Rowan for his brilliant and insightful words. He is a good soul, with a strong perspective, and a non-existent tolerance for bullshit.
And now, ladies and germs, for your viewing pleasure…
No Port in a Storm: Innocence, Experience & Loss in ‘Some Tales & Travels of Captain Fakehead’
“A slice of division, a slight degree slanted.
Gone was the tool that all take for granted.”
The questing theme is a long-held literary tradition. Epistemology often takes the form of philosophical discourse and dialogue, but, in its own way, also functions like a quest.
More often than not, the quest is internal – Socrates and Descartes articulate the challenge best. However, this particular theme is rarely the focus of fiction, whether poetry or prose. It’s also generally not funny, sad or touching, often all at once.
Cary Haun makes knowing the subject of “Some Tales & Travels of Captain Fakehead,” a novel in prose and verse that takes a unique approach to the concept of growing pains.
An interdimensional picaresque, “Fakehead” is a hero’s journey that is by turns humorous and haunting. The book uses its titular protagonist’s quest for knowledge — of self, of death, vengeance and, ultimately, existence itself — as the principal motivation for what Haun calls “an endeavor in philosophical difference and absurdity.”
Scars of Childhood
The tone of absurdity is almost immediately apparent. The story begins like some sort of dark fairytale.
A father christens his newborn son Integer Vitae, perhaps as preemptive forgiveness for the death of the boy’s mother in childbirth. The tone of innocence suggested by that first name is quickly upended by the revelation that dad is a serial killer who murders prostitutes and buries them in the backyard.
Integer’s own innocence is stripped away, too, on the arrival of Death. Accompanied by his two demon minions Murder and Slain, Death arrives at the Vitae household to claim the soul of dad’s latest victim. Unfortunately, the eavesdropping Integer catches the demons’ attention. This grim encounter ends with Death ripping a hole through time and space — a cut that ends Integer’s innocence and tears the transdimensional setting of the story irreparably open.
Dad, awakened by the commotion, jumps up and lops off the boy’s head. A moment of certain death actually sets his son’s life in motion.
Innocence vs. Experience
Despite the grim portrait painted in its first chapters, the storybook quality of “Fakehead” persists through much of the first volume. In running away from home, Integer encounters a dragon who blesses him with a protective totemic symbol. The boy also helps a sentient toy automaton escape from her clockwork village, and weathers the evil machinations of a medieval-style warlord and his satanic vizier.
However, Haun never flinches from depicting the pain — physical and spiritual — accompanying each of these strange milestones. The dragon’s totem requires Integer to withstand being all but boiled from the inside. The warm welcome of the inhabitants in the clockwork town gives way to a mob scene straight out of a Universal “Frankenstein” film.
The quaint hamlet — called Amaranth, an ironic name for a town that literally runs on rails and signals Haun’s preoccupation with the fluidity and entropy of time — houses secrets beneath its cogs and gears, chief among them that it was designed by a mad toymaker who imagined living playthings.
The toymaker’s one living and thinking creation, a robot named Francesca, helps Phylo find the first of several “fake heads” that he mounts on his neck stump. Tellingly, this physical effacement of identity virtually coincides with the character’s ditching his given name to suit the circumstances of his increasingly topsy-turvy world.
Wormholes, Warlords & Wilderness Years
As it is for anyone, experience for Phylo is hard-earned. And, as the story progresses, his uncertain destiny ripples and rages into the lives of the other characters in unexpected ways.
Phylo and Francesca make a desperate escape from Amaranth and end up on a serene seaside coast. Francesca’s enjoyment of the waves and breeze coming off the ocean is a sweet respite from the harrowing journeys thus far, but the tranquil interlude is cut by their encounter with that most perilous of objects, a picnic table.
The carvings in the faded, green-washed wood pronounce eternal love — from lovers long-dead, the story says. They also serve as runes that catapult Phylo into an even more fantastical dimension (if that’s possible) where an evil warlord’s castle holds a laboratory-cum-torture chamber of which Mengele would be proud. As Phylo is forced to submit to alchemical experimentation, a climactic battle topples the fortress walls, leaving Phylo to spend what in most storybooks is the hero’s formative years entombed in absolute silence.
Haun paints a desolate picture of Phylo’s coming of age, subverting the typical bildungsroman tradition by depicting his growing up entirely as a one-sided dialogue with an unseen silence. Although surrounded by tales of dragons, demonic toys and climactic castle sieges, “The Stillness” (the first of several named chapters presented throughout the book) is the centerpiece of Volume I, tracing the journey to adulthood as a lone voice crying out against the madness of solitude.
2 Boys, 1 Girl & A Boat
Few quest stories include only one character, and “Captain Fakehead” also delves into the experiences of the companions who join Phylo. The first steady ally emerges in Michael, a potter’s apprentice who longs to be a writer.
Michael quickly establishes himself as Panza to Phylo’s Quixote. He offers to chronicle his adventures, and Volume II accordingly switches from third-person omniscient to Michael’s perspective of his headless friend’s adventures.
Of course, these are Michael’s adventures, too. Central to Volume II is Michael’s love for a fallen valkyrie named Gunnr. Like Phylo, Gunnr is motivated by an act of mutilation that forever changed her life — the sundering of her wings as punishment for poorly presiding over a battle that turned into a bloodbath. The same battle, it turns out, that toppled the castle around Phylo and led to his 10-year imprisoned adolescence among the rubble.
Once again, experience harshly earned, and not necessarily leaving the individual for the better.
The seaside as the point of disembarkation for a host of weird and sinister travels returns when Phylo and his companions board a haunted vessel named the Ciardha. There, Michael undergoes his own formative mutilation at the hands of grotesque, hedonistic, vulture-headed passengers known as Blood-Drinkers, who invite Michael into their queasy opium den of a lair and goad him into severing his own arm in a twisted game of chance.
Unlike Sancho Panza, Michael’s misfortunes aren’t exclusively caused by a bellicose traveling companion. He makes his own mistakes, as illustrated most graphically in the scene with the Blood-Drinkers, and he pays for them, emerging with a tree-like replacement arm harvested from a nymph.
Whatever its merits, transformation is rarely a seamless or pleasant process in Haun’s writing. Michael and Phylo become brothers in dismemberment.
“We Must Have Died Alone – A Long, Long Time Ago”
Like Bowie’s “man who sold the world,” Phylo also searches for form and land. Or, put more explicitly, stability in a world gone mad.
But he and his friends don’t find it in the gloomy port town before they set sail, or among the rogues’ gallery of peculiar passengers aboard the Ciardha. Nor does resolution come once the ship docks on terra firma, bringing Phylo, Michael and Gunnr face to face with a host of crazy experiences that begin, tellingly, at an ominous landing point called the Curve of Decay that opens up into the ominous Dimensional Lands.
This latter half of Volume II repeatedly returns to the hallucinatory tone of the Blood-Drinkers sequence aboard the Ciardha. However, the stomach-churning quality of that segment is replaced by more abstract — but nonetheless disquieting — imagery.
A cup of mind-expanding tea with a shaman that reveals forever but quickly collapses into anti-climax, a ghostly church next to a lighthouse in the desert (a jab against religion somewhat undercut by the spectral beauty of one of Haun’s original illustrations depicting the scene), a traveling caravan of sideshow freaks of which Browning and Buñuel both would be proud, even an art gallery curated by an angel and a devil who put aside their apocalyptic enmity for the sake of aesthetics — each of these sequences is gripping, but the characters only emerge with more confusion and questions.
Some of these “tales and travels” verge on the ephemeral. But picaresques are haphazard by design, and the disorienting quality of the characters who move in and quickly out of the story only serve to highlight both the absurdity of Phylo’s adventures and the obscurity of knowledge gleaned from such bizarre encounters.
As Phylo himself observes to Gunnr, contemplating the role of Death in the story:
“I don’t know …
It could depend on how tightly bonded
He is with his own conception.
Maybe the universe has made an exception.”
Master and Commander – of None
Even after taking the titular mantle after the passing of the previous commander of the Ciardha, the newly self-appointed Captain Fakehead finds no simple solutions; arguably, he finds only harder questions. Volume III shifts perspective once again, this time to Phylo/Integer himself, and Haun effectively brings both his exhaustion and bewilderment to the forefront throughout this final stretch.
There are still spectacular setpieces, to be sure. The parched atmosphere in the northern regions of the seas traversed by the Ciardha is straight out of Coleridge, and themes of adventure on the high seas and body horror memorably collide in a naval skirmish where the hero’s vessel fights a battleship composed from undead corpses. The latter half of the final volume transforms into a hunt for Death, the principal characters raiding a series of hells and surveying the devastation wrought by the demons and their master.
However, Haun underscores each of these scenes of excitement and magnificent settings with sobering reminders of the price Captain Fakehead and his comrades pay for their quest. Loss of friendship. Loss of love. And, notably, loss of faith in the very concept of knowledge.
As Fakehead observes in the final hell, knowledge is:
“A homeless idea that begs its own truth.
Exposes itself as a useless tooth
That has a purpose, indeed, a plan.
But in the end, overall … is useless for man.”
A Killer ‘Experience,’ A Grand Finale
Like Fakehead’s own unlikely life and his surreal travels, even existence gives way beneath the vagaries of unlikely lore that haunt Haun’s characters. Although it precedes the literal fight to the Death that marks the climax of the book, the author saves his most beautiful and unnerving sequence for second-to-last.
In a fiery showdown that immolates an opera house attended by the damned, both demon and immortal alike recognize an elusive greater truth: the value of sacrifice amid the pageantry of “BIG” questions that govern our lives and force us into action, regardless of consequence.
The theatrical scene upends the motivations of the central characters. It also defies the reader’s expectations for definite meaning in a story that not only eschews easy answers but often denies their very existence.
This penultimate battle recalls two Shakespearean turns of phrase that perfectly encapsulate the themes of transitional identity and the transitory nature of existence that are present throughout “Tales & Travels.”
First, the expected bromide:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances.”
But perhaps a quote more in sync with the tone and, ultimately, the message of “Captain Fakehead” depicts the darker side of time and play:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.”
A variety of players dance across the stage of “Captain Fakehead,” each entrance and exit shaping the eponymous character’s journey. Throughout, he must face a shadow that haunts not just his life, but all of life, often accompanied by others dedicated to his cause but, ultimately, alone.
But Haun leaves room for hope, however small. The scope of the story simultaneously contracts and explodes with a late-coming revelation as Integer Vitae/Phylo Fakehead dons his final replacement noggin. The conclusion deftly teases both glimmers of possibilities and melancholy improbabilities.
But: These are only “some” of the tales and travels of our intrepid captain. And, as Haun repeatedly proves, no explanation can supplant experience.
Adam Rowan has written for digital and print outlets for more than 10 years. His contributions have been published on Yahoo!, Gaiam, the blog for the Boulder International Film Festival, PR Daily, TheCelebrityCafe.com and other websites, as well as print and online editions of the Colorado Daily, Daily Camera and Longmont Times-Call. Criticism and review scores are like the Borgias: unsuitable bedfellows at best.