Fever Chart, by Bill Cotter (2009)

Dedication to Hallucinations.

Cover image to Fever Chart by Bill Cotter

Jerome Coe collects personal tragedies like some people collect stamps. In and out of mental institutions for most of his life due to visual hallucinations and breaks from reality, he travels somewhere new each time he is released, reluctantly makes friends (or at least acquaintances), and when everything goes to shit—which it inevitably does—he winds up back in the hospital and the cycle starts all over again. As if his mental illness and transience weren’t bad enough, there seems to be a pallid curse that hangs over Jerome: every girl that he falls in love with dies a horrible death. And make no mistake, the boy falls in love easily, sometimes without even meeting the girl in question. Just the idea of a girl, the slightest whiff of her spirit, is enough to send him head over heels.

And so we follow Jerome as he travels from place to place on a series of absurd misadventures as he falls in love, goes mad, and starts all over again. As for a traditional plot, it’s scarcely there. It exists, but is thin as a thread and pulled tight, stretched to the hilt. The narrative wanders this way and that so often that you begin to believe there’s no possible way that everything can come together at the end. And you’re absolutely right. Certain elements that were introduced along the way do indeed fall into place by the end, but not all of them. Not by a long shot. Those that do are so heavily reliant on coincidence that it defies credibility. But credibility and creativity do not always go hand-in-hand.

Fever Chart is creative. There’s a wacky and playful use of language here that bring a bit of flair to the proceedings, and characters as unconventional as you can imagine. Unconventional is fine, troubled is great, and emotionally disturbed is all the better; however if you don’t like the characters, you can’t sympathize with the characters, and if you don’t sympathize with them, then you don’t really care what happens to them. And that is my primary problem with this novel. Not its meandering ways, but the fact that all of the major players are terrible and unlikable people. If we knew them in real life, we would cut them out of our social circles; and if we saw them at Wal-Mart, we’d take covert photographs and post them on the Internet with snarky captions.

Yes, it’s true that Jerome suffers from mental illness, and perhaps that is the root cause of some of his baser biological obsessions, but hearing about them incessantly does little to earn my affection. He defecates himself; he urinates into a hollow doll rather than find the bathroom in the house he’s visiting, then places it back where he found it; he furiously masturbates into dirty socks; he dry-humps his unavailable, and unconscious, love interest until climax; and he says things like, “Gland systems secreted. Lust slid like a pat of butter in a cast iron skillet.” I’m unable to feel for him. I’m only able to feel disgusted by him. And I can’t imagine that’s the point here.

By the second false-start of the plot proper, I had toyed with the idea of moving on to something else, but the one thing that kept me moving was my faith in the book’s publisher, McSweeney’s. Theirs is a carefully cultivated garden, and they’ve never let me down with any of the delicacies I’ve sampled in the past, so I pushed onward. And in the end, I’m glad that I did. Getting Jerome Coe from Point A to Point B was an awkward and uncomfortable journey, and one that I’m not certain that I would make again; but by the time we got there I was thankful for the trip. I had seen the best of this character, and Lord knows I had seen the worst. The ending may not have fit tonally with the rest of the book, but for that I was actually glad.

It meant I could leave Jerome behind and never have to see him again, content with the fact that I was leaving him in good hands—or at the very least, hands that were good enough to ease my guilty conscience.

Fever Chart was author Bill Cotter’s debut novel, first published in 2009. Cotter has openly discussed in interviews that he’s no stranger to the rigors of the mental institution, and he took those personal experiences and wove them into this partially-surreal narrative of life on the outside of Normal. Though not my favorite in McSweeney’s catalog, I’m intrigued enough to check out more of the author’s work. His second novel, The Parallel Apartments was released in 2014.

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