This month, Northern Illinois University Press will release its republication of Leonard Cline’s God Head. First published in 1925, Cline’s debut work was received by enormous critical acclaim.
“Leonard Cline could write rings around a half dozen of our ten best novelists,” proclaimed the New York World. “When a new novelist, who is really good shines forth, we are supposed to be first to review or, as you might say, revere him. Well, Cline is such a new novelist,” affirmed the New Yorker.
Given his substantial literary merits, one wonders what had to happen to Cline to prevent him from achieving the iconic literary status of a Fitzgerald or a Hemingway. As it turns out, a lot happened. Two years after the publication of God Head, Cline was convicted of manslaughter for shooting a good friend while drunk. Two years after that he died of heart failure. He was thirty-six.
Although God Head was Cline’s first novel, his style is that of an accomplished storyteller. Set in the upper peninsula of Michigan, the novel describes one Paulus Kempf, a New York doctor who has moved to the rural Midwest in the hopes of promoting class-consciousness and socialism. After authorities break up a secret lecture he was giving to workers, Paulus is forced to go into hiding. Hungry, alone, and feverish, Paulus finds refuge in the home of Karl and Aino, a Finnish couple with Marxist sympathies. Although the couple soon nurses his body back to health, Paulus reveals himself to be a man both broken and disturbed. Even early on in the book there are clues that Paulus has megalomaniacal and sociopathic tendencies. In his feverish delirium he imagines himself visited by “Gogmagog,” a mythic guardian of the forest who instructs him to drink deep the blood of the squirrel he has only just killed. (11) His description of his career as doctor is disturbingly crass. “I was a surgeon,” he tells Aino, “I kept on cutting people up. In Baltimore, in New York, in Newark. It’s different when the meat is alive.” (19) Paulus expresses increasing disdain for his hosts and the community in which he has found refuge. With a third of his story left untold, Paulus has a full-on break with reality as he begins impersonating characters from Finnish mythology.
“I am Lemminkainen. Ah, yes, and I sing too, Joe. Suppose I sang about you right now, Joe. Do you know what would happen?”
The head wagged a jerky negative
“Why, Joe, right away you’d turn into a pig. Just like those pigs there – only of course you’d be a very old pig without any hair on you, not worth a snout in the trough.” (124)
While the townspeople don’t exactly buy Paulus’ story, they nevertheless fall for his energy and charisma. The quiet and demure Finns of the Upper Peninsula get boxed into giving Paulus anything and everything he wants. For example, Paulus’s patroness Aino cheats on her husband with Paulus, even though she knows that he will eventually leave her and she will be left to pick up the pieces of a ruined marriage. As it turns out she actually won’t have to pick up those pieces, because Paulus murders his host Karl by pushing him off a tall cliff.
In many ways God Head is a forerunner of the hard-boiled genre of detective fiction and film noir. Brooding, disturbed, alternately comic and despondent, Paulus is a noir protagonist. One moment he is drunk on his own power, the next he is totally insecure. One motif that is important for drawing out Paulus’ vacillating personal confidence involves the usage of his knife:
Even though the idea of using his knife excites him, its usage is evidently fraught. A villager, Oscar, becomes sick and needs to have a hole in his throat opened if he is to survive. Even though Paulus is a former surgeon, he can hardly bring himself to use a knife to cut the child. The reason isn’t because he is afraid of hurting the kid. Paulus could care less about Oscar, or anyone for that matter. His problem with performing the surgery is, illogically enough, that he might break his knife. (70) The thought of breaking his knife causes him to remember “all my brave undertakings and all my inevitable failures. I remembered that I was a coward.” (70)
Transforming weaponry into a phallic symbol was common in film noir. Also common were misogynistic portrayals of women. Misogynistic characterization does not in itself create a misogynistic work of fiction, especially when the story is related by an unreliable or dislikeable narrator. In the case of God Head, it would be totally out of character for Paulus to respect the humanity of women, since he doesn’t respect the humanity of anyone at all. One purpose of the book is to make the reader think about how the quiet, trusting Finns react to a bipolar maniac who wanders in from the big city. Still, the causal mechanics of Aino’s decision-making are particularly incoherent. She resists Paulus’ advances, eventually the two get in a fistfight, and immediately after have intercourse for the first time. After that moment the two are evidently in love, or in hate, as Paulus says the love and the hate fuel each other. Whether Aino consented to any of that should remain an open question.
While the story should make one feel uncomfortable, the stylistics of the book are an unqualified delight. Cline’s style is loose and readable. His diction is clever and often amusing. Rather than saying he lied, Cline has Paulus say, “I concocted a rococo story.” (15) When he wants to describe a character as angry, he instead writes, “Her eyes were wasps.” (87) The book develops psychological and interpersonal tension nicely. One never knows what will happen next inside Paulus’s head, and curiosity about what bombshell is coming speeds the plot along. Aino, Karl, and the rest of the grounded Finnish townspeople serve as a great foil for the stratospheric Paulus. God Head is good literature. It tells a compelling and off-beat story that one will not easily forget.
Brian Libgober works as a polling analyst for the Obama Campaign. He is the author of a novel, Memories from Beyond the States, for which he is currently seeking representation. You can find links to more of his writing at libgober.wordpress.com