Elysiana by Chris Knopf
The novel Elysiana is about the eponymous barrier island off the coast of South Jersey. Chris Knopf, known for the Sam Acquillo Hamptons Mystery novels, has written a self-contained novel set in the summer of 1969. It begins with Midwestern girl Gwendolynn Anders suffering a bad drug trip. Time loses coherence as Gwendolynn experiences memories and flashbacks, seeing herself at a party, and then finding herself in the back of car. She gradually regains control of her mental faculties and then realizes she is on Elysiana. The island, only twenty-five miles long and a mile wide, presents a microcosm of life. Following the temporal disorientation of Gwendolynn’s bad trip, the reader is introduced to other characters populating the tiny island.
Knopf fills the island with villains and oddballs. At the beginning, the characters seem more like an accumulation of quirks. Avery Volpe is the hard-as-nails captain of the beach patrol. Norm Harlan is the chubby wannabe authoritarian working as the borough president. Convinced of American moral decline, he is on a crusade to eradicate the island’s hippies and to gain more power. As the novel’s plot progresses, we find out how far Norm is willing to go to concentrate power in his hands. Gwendolynn meets Norm, his flighty wife Paula, and his daughter Sweetie who constantly gets lost. Due to Sweetie’s penchant for wandering off, the Harlans hire Gwendolynn as their au pair. Despite the cloying name, Sweetie remains of the few child characters that is not annoying or a caricature of cuteness. For living arrangements, Gwendolynn ends up staying with Jack Halycon, a brain-damaged oddball living in the Imperial Hotel. Both Halycon and the Imperial Hotel sport fascinating back-stories that tie into the labyrinthine relationships tying together the small island community.
Characters develop from quirky caricatures into fully formed beings when the plot begins to click into action. Classified as both a thriller and a fable, Knopf weaves a tale that involves power plays, bureaucratic in-fighting, and drug-running. Throwaway lines yield clues to bigger conspiracies. Norm Harlan, with the help of the Elysiana Police, sets himself on a mad quest to discover the big suppliers to the drug runners soiling his fine island. A mysterious female complicates the life of a lifeguard, finding himself in the crossfire between Avery Volpe’s love and Norm Harlan’s quest for political domination.
Setting the novel in the Sixties allows for a certain level of looseness, unexpected in a book billing itself as a thriller. However, the looseness provides room for the various relationships, personal and institutional, to slowly gel or fragment. The novel is reminiscent of early work by Tom Robbins, before his work devolved into cuteness and monotonous whimsy. It can be appreciated by those looking for a fun read and those looking for an innovative approach to the thriller genre.