“Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere” is one of those book titles pushed so close to ridiculousness that it is almost worth it to read it on account of the name alone. That way, you can boast to your friends that lately you’ve read, “Hamlet,” “Jane Eyre,” and “Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere.” It has a ring, and sometimes a book needs to scream at people for attention.
The author, Poe Ballantine, has a tendency to be in the wrong place at the right time. Or the right place at the wrong time. He may have actually said that about himself, and I’m just quoting him. If you see his name in a byline, read it. If you’ve read This memoir/mystery is no different.
After facing the financial travails that is modern-day authorship, Ballantine found himself in Chadron, a little town in the panhandle of Nebraska. A few scattered thousand populate the town, and Ballantine brought along his wife Christina, whom he courted in her native Mexico. They had a child together, Tom, thought by many to be autistic. Tom is a delightful companion throughout the memoir. His curiosity and imaginative demeanor provide an ease from the slowly-building tensions in Chadron.
Ballantine’s jobs and lack thereof present him with ample opportunity to mingle with the oddball populace, of which he is certainly a member. Four books behind him and looking ahead, his publisher(and her detective fiance) fly out to scope out book opportunities. She suggests a graphic novel centered on the town folk, or a quirky cookbook to capitalize on his skills as a short-order cook. Dead-end ideas abound till Chadron is confronted with a devastating, unknown crime, which is amplified with the small-town dynamics. A relatively young, very bright math professor from the small university in the city ends up missing, only to be found ninety-five days later burned to death near the foothills on a local farm.
I will deviate from the plot-review, which is like a real-life episode in a Roberto Bolano novel. In Chadron, the quaint town, nearly everyone knows everyone. This leads the intrigue and suspicion to come in on high alert. Ballantine floats among the major parties looking to solve the crime, and with very little to no help from the dead professor’s family, Ballantine is forced to wrestle with the details he can muster out of a cautious populace. The suspicion runs deep through the town and finds conflicts with trust, truth, and tension.