After all the maniacs, torturers and zombies of our times, who is the scariest person of them all? The cornered little man with no scruples. “A Half Life of One,” written with elegant parsimony by Bill Liversidge, a mild-mannered Englishman writing near Strachan, Scotland, is one of the most chilling horror stories I’ve read. And it could happen anywhere.
Nick Dowty’s very nice business has just collapsed due to circumstances rather than bad management. Nick is a man who is constantly managing, always looking for the work-around, the profitable corner to cut, the appearance that saves the day. But none of it works this time and the slide to the bottom is taking his exasperated wife and scornful son down with him. Lashing and blaming, then hiding and doing-without, Dowty is willing to do most anything except, say, take any job that comes along like stacking shelves in a grocery store. This is what his hard-working wife wants, nearly orders him to do, but he blanks that out.
Not that he’s without energy. He prowls the neighborhood, which he knows very well. It added considerable interest for me to know that the territory near Cairngorm and the river Dee, where Dowty thinks of poaching salmon, is the original seat of my birth family, Strachan -- which we pronounce “Strawn.” I had no idea that the Highland Clearances (comparable to clearing the prairie of Indians so as to make the land profitable except that the people eliminated were poor Scots) had left hidey holes all over the area in the form of collapsing farm houses or even caves.
The idea of poaching salmon is triggered by sighting a supposedly wealthy and certainly beautiful young woman who is fly-fishing for the big silver creatures. But Dowty is not seduced by the beauty of it all nor is he inclined to fish for food, though he’s near starving. Rather, his thoughts run to big nets and fish-stunning poison in order to sell to the trade. His very soul is seized by commodification.
The obvious way to commodify a rich woman is kidnapping. He sets about his business plan but this is unfamiliar territory and despite his resourcefulness and diligence of preparation, he has little notion of what can go wrong. The force he knows the least is himself. At first the reader thinks that all this blundering, often hilarious, will end with some kind of realization and insight. Maybe this selfish little man will find a way to end up on a yacht in the Caribbean with this fine woman.
Then slowly the horror grows, entirely logical but sometimes surprising beyond imagination. This story is about the banality of evil, how small insensitivities and neglects lead to crimes of omission more damning than malevolence. It is also, rather indirectly, about the relentlessness of profit, which grinds up anyone in its path.
This is a time in history when we read about disasters so much that best-selling books and a pack of cards are simply advice about how to escape or at least cope with danger, from sharks to quicksand. (There really is NO escape from being in the World Trade Tower when it is hit by a huge airplane.) Many of us have learned that a selfish, blaming boss can be the worst hazard of all to anyone trying to earn a living in a dignified way. More than that, our very “civilization” is forming too many people into Nick Dowty by neglecting children.
One of my favorite though rather ghastly stories from animal control officer days is about the old woman and her “friend” who lived in a small house on a side street. She went to visit her sister, said the friend, leaving him to watch the place, keep up the yard, and that sort of thing. She was gone months. The sister was evidently ill. Neighbors thought nothing of it. The social security checks continued to arrive and be deposited to the joint account. Bills were paid. Then one day a telephone lineman up a pole looked in the upstairs bedroom window and saw a blanket with a human form outlined in mold and rot. The sight was gruesome enough for him to go to the police and, of course, it WAS the old lady. The friend had not killed her, he’d just sort of not let her die, in a way. He wasn’t quite the monster that Dowty could be, and didn’t consider himself a gentleman of sensibility as Dowty did.
Another story is about a man who went through exactly the kind of financial meltdown as our antihero except that his empire was actually a bit bigger. His family left. He sat on the front porch and rocked and pitched all the bills and notices and threatening letters into a box, then several boxes. He’d found a little cache of Reader’s Digests and one of them said what to do if a person went bankrupt. It said, “You will be called to a meeting of financial advisors. Sit quietly and tap your fingertips together. Say nothing. They will take care of it all.” That’s exactly what happened, except that there was a patch of land up by Neah Bay in the NW corner of the state of Washington -- nearly inaccessible. No one wanted it.
So he went there and built a little cabin. The area was so beautiful that he took photos, then people asked to buy them, then he made a bit of money and built a better cabin with a dark room in it and then... Well, when we visited him, he was turning work down so he could sit on the porch and rock.
This counter-story comforts me after reading “A Half Life of One.” It’s not about radioactivity, but rather about a half-person who lives only for one: himself. Quite horrifying. This tale will haunt me. And I was already rather haunted by the Highland Clearances, to say nothing of clearing the prairies, even though the Strachans were Dakota homesteaders when they emigrated.