Knights of the Cornerstone

Every so often I think I ought to start writing about the books I read, just to keep my brain in shape. I never seem to keep up with this. I’m going to try it again, but given how long it took me to finish this rather badly written review maybe I shouldn’t get my hopes up.

The Knights of the Cornerstone is about learning to engage with the world. Cal, James Blaylock’s hero, is a thirtysomething guy who lives alone, collects books, draws cartoons, and spends his time standing aside and watching life. As a thirtysomething cartoonist who lives alone, accumulates books—it doesn’t rise to the level of “collecting,” I fear—and doesn’t get out much, I may or may not be this book’s ideal reader. I was distracted by the subconcious expectation that, at any moment, the characters would turn to the reader and ask “Are you getting all this?”

Beyond that, for anyone who’s read Blaylock before this book is not particularly striking. It’s not bad. It’s like… have you seen Spellbound? The Alfred Hitchcock movie? Spellbound is worth seeing. More than once, even. It’s not a great movie; Hitchcock was not pushing himself. It says something that the best part of Spellbound was the work of Salvador Dali. But it is a Hitchcock movie, and it does the things Hitchcock movies do.

Knights of the Cornerstone is a James Blaylock novel, and it does the things James Blaylock novels do. Or some of them; this is the strain of Blaylock best represented by The Last Coin and The Paper Grail. Blaylock’s Thing in this case is a conspiracy surrounding an ancient magical MacGuffin set among ordinary people in an everyday world. Like an Indiana Jones plot, if instead of Indiana Jones you had Arthur Dent and he spent the whole movie in a small town somewhere in California. Blaylock’s heroes are not heroic and his villains are not master criminals.

That doesn’t mean they’re not competent, but they’re competent the way real people are competent. Let them loose with the kind of gear they can get from their jobs or the hardware store—CCTV cameras, fire hoses—and they’ll improvise. On the flat-out action movie stuff they’re a little hazy. When Knights’s villain turns up with a bomb, Cal has no idea what to do with it. He and the villain spend the next few pages like Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam: passing the bomb back and forth, extinguishing and relighting the fuse. So compared to what you get when you set James Bond against the terrorist/superspy/crazy industrialist of the week, the war between the villain and the titular Knights is… unexpected. Camels are involved.

All of which plays up Blaylock Thing Number Two: a good chunk of the Knights’ isolated little town is quietly eccentric. One of the messages you get from this strain of his work is that it’s better to be slightly, harmlessly nutty than omnicompetent. Or at least more interesting. Often Blaylock’s people are out of step with their time; they’re looking back, nostalgically, at a bygone world that seems to them to have held lost treasures. Cal collects old books on California history and finds himself in a town which could be part of that history. New Cyprus is a town untouched by the last half of the 20th century, tenuously connected by a ferry which makes deliveries a couple times a week. It’s everybody’s rosy idealistic vision of American small-town life… life lived at a slow pace, old houses, little diners, a fraternal organization at the heart of the community… and a population that looks awfully homogenous, especially as it becomes clear that everybody you meet is a Knight of the Cornerstone.

Which may explain why I wasn’t quite satisfied with where Cal ends up. Knights of the Cornerstone’s hero is engaged with the world, but from the perspective of an urbanite who likes being surrounded by coffee shops and bookstores the world he’s engaged with seems itself to stand on the sidelines of life.