If only Jim Lehrer would stop calling his characters lunatics, he might have written a better novel. Not that the word is unjustified—the book is, after all, about mental patients in the 1930s. But Birdie Carlucci and Josh Lancaster are two of the most benevolent, eloquent lunatics you’ll ever meet.
“I hereby forewarn everyone present,” Josh says, “that what you are about to experience, through the straightforward unembellished true and accurate recitation of my experience as a small boy in Centralia, is something that can only bring you to the outer limits of your ability to tolerate savagery, gore, and horror.”
Lehrer’s writing is accomplished and moving, but that’s not exactly how I’d envision a mental patient addressing 400 lunatics.
A Kansas City detective discovers the eightysomething Birdie hiding in the city’s long-abandoned Union Station. Birdie tells the man he started living there 63 years ago, when trains with mythical names like the Flying Crow breezed into town. Intrigued, the detective checks out his tale and begins searching for Birdie’s long-lost friend, Josh.
Through flashbacks, we see young Birdie, the “new loony” at the Missouri State Asylum who befriends Josh, the institution’s elder statesman. Josh captivates patients with his retelling of the Centralia massacre—an actual event—which he witnessed as a child. On September 27, 1864, a band of Civil War rogues hijacked a train and executed 22 unarmed Union soldiers and a few bystanders as all 100 residents of Centralia, Missouri, watched.
Birdie understands Josh’s feelings of helplessness—he too witnessed a massacre, an event so vivid he’s reduced to screaming fits: On June 17, 1933, three men opened fire in front of Union Station, killing two police officers, a federal agent, and a prisoner. But rather than run from the scene of the crime, Birdie decides to live out his life there.
What brings Josh and Birdie together—the massacres—is what eventually tears them apart. Birdie convinces himself that the only way to end his guilt for not saving four lives is to give his life up to the station. Josh, who spends his days petering out in the asylum, wants nothing to do with Centralia, even if it means forsaking his hometown and every sane friend he has.
Credit must be given to Lehrer—host of PBS’s The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer—for his research into little-known massacres. But as he plunges deeper into Josh and Birdie’s demons, his inability to develop the characters may leave you questioning their true states of mind. Did their tortured pasts drive them to the verge of lunacy, or did paralyzing guilt prevent them from readjusting to society?
It’s a question Lehrer doesn’t answer.