Writers and readers alike often have a hard time differentiating between point of view and perspective. Whereas point of view impacts how a given piece is written (first-person, second-person, third-person) and can be identified through the pronouns used in writing (I, you, he, she, etc.), perspective goes beyond that and allows the writer to present a scene as viewed through the eyes of a chosen character. When utilized successfully, an author’s use of perspective can enhance the reader’s experience and provide a more compelling narrative with glimpses into the innermost thoughts of the characters’ minds.
A writer who knows how to use perspective to his advantage is Kirby Gann, as seen in his 2012 novel Ghosting. This story centers on James Cole Prather and the disappearance of his half-brother, Fleece – along with a stash of marijuana belonging to a sickly drug kingpin known as Mister Greuel. After discovering Fleece’s burnt-out car, Cole, as he’s known, journeys into Kentucky’s criminal underworld to locate his brother and discovers a lineup of marginal characters who must scratch out a living amid economic ruin – even as the conservative churches in their communities insist that prosperity can be had if they just work hard enough and believe. Writers such as John Burnham Schwartz have noted that Gann’s carefully crafted portrayals of even minor figures create a cast of “unforgettable characters” that sets his latest book apart from his others. In her April 20, 2012 article in the Southern Literary Review, Tina Egnoski goes a step further and explains that “[b]y giving voice to these minor characters, Gann creates a full portrait of a community riddled by drugs and economic hardship, and at the same time struggling to find a spiritual foothold.” It is through the use of multiple perspectives in his narrative that Kirby Gann is able to develop and highlight the memorable characters in Ghosting, creating in the process a more compelling story.
Although Cole Prather is the protagonist in Kirby Gann’s third novel, minor characters play important parts in the story, each one adding to the variety of perspectives in the narrative while acquiring its own unique voice. The reader, for example, is better able to understand Lyda Skaggs, Cole’s mother, by learning about her past and the events that led to her addiction to pills. Told from her perspective it is easy to see clearly how drugs impact her life on page 66: “A lot of work goes into scoring meds. No one would describe Lyda as a nervous busybody, but she does possess abundant physical energy, a drive that, without an outlet, easily transforms to anxiety and paranoia; she needs to keep her hands busy. Oxy, Nembutal, Flexeril, Dilaudid if she can get it, keep her steady . . .”
In addition, the author is able to paint a more vivid picture for the reader by revealing Lyda’s innermost thoughts and struggles, especially when she’s trying to rationalize her other son’s disappearance on page 72: “. . . truth be told, she didn’t like hunting up doctors who might fall for each and every ailment, there’s a lot of information to memorize, prepare, express – and but yet no way her boy would abandon her without word, no word near five weeks now not even a phone call.” By shifting perspective and concentrating on a particular individual in the narrative, such as Lyda, Gann not only fleshes out her character, he also adds richness and interest to the story in general.
The same is true when Gann modulates between perspectives to enliven his other characters. One of them is Gil Ponder, a former junkie turned preacher, who heads up the profitable Christ World Emergent. Although it’s evident to the reader from the beginning that Ponder’s church believes in the power of money and inherent symbols of wealth (“On the altar up there, beside an untouched, empty chalice and what looks like a cross bound in leather, sets of car keys hang from a small stand, the logos of luxury manufacturers recognizable even at this distance: Acura, BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz.”), it isn’t really until Gann provides an interior perspective to the pastor’s thoughts that the reader discovers Ponder’s ulterior motives on page 216: “Ponder’s initial impulse had been to lease the drool-inducing Acura NSX. The idea had thrown him into a real interior wrestling match, debating with himself the pros and cons of the message an evangelical driving that wild ride might encourage. He wanted to attract youth the CWE, especially boys . . . and boys in this corner of Kentucky love fast cars.” By providing this interiority through his use of perspective, the author has created in Brother Gil Ponder a believable character that the reader won’t soon forget.
Another memorable, if not likeable, character in Ghosting is Arley Noe, Mister Greuel’s violent, blue-tinted partner in crime who people know as “Blue Note” because of the recessive gene that has colored his skin. When Noe has his assistant, Professor Mule, get the infamous “toolbox” from the truck, the reader quickly discovers that the hammer and snips are not for the average home improvement job. Rather, they’re for Dwayne Hardesty, the unfortunate caretaker suspected of knowing more about the disappearance of Mister Greuel’s drugs than he’s letting on. By using perspective to scrutinize Noe and his actions, Gann not only lets the reader know that the outcome isn’t going to be a good one for Hardesty, he also provides insight into the machinery of Noe’s mind on page 178: “None of what he says can satisfy Arley Noe. It almost seems as though words are not even what the blue man wants to hear, and it feels like they are there a long time, asking. Cole cannot figure exactly what Noe expects to learn from the man – everything Hardesty says appears to arise from some deep-seated honesty and the utmost desire to be released from this chair and this room, yet with each answer he loses another piece of flesh.”
Gann also uses an up-close perspective to show the innermost workings of the brain of the ailing Mister Greuel, perhaps one of the most memorable characters in the book, if nothing more than by virtue of his ominous name. While Greuel sits in church, the author says on page 32 that it is because “[h]e has come partly out of malicious nostalgia; he has come to silently mock; most of all he has come for the tingle of the deal, the opportunity to make money, at the urging of his associate Arley Noe.” In addition, Gann uses this interiority to show Greuel’s concerns for his deteriorating physical condition, possibly in an attempt to humanize him and make him more sympathetic to the reader on page 181: “He used to be the man who made things happen. Now his feet look like something inflated by a clown for the amusement of children. He hates the sight of them; but they burn radiantly even as the rest of him freezes, so he can’t hide the feet beneath his blankets.” This perspective comes in handy 20 pages later when Greuel is feeling better, although it’s only temporary, and “[he] slaps his puffy palms together and falls back into the soft comfort of his pillows. He feels as alive as he has in months. Like the weeks of corticosteroids have only now begun to kick in. As he sighs in satisfaction, even the seagulls in his chest are silent.”
In frequently exposing the reader to Greuel’s thoughts, as well as those of other characters such as Lyda Skaggs, Arley Noe and Gil Ponder, Gann proves that perspective is an effective tool to make his characters more interesting and better defined. In addition, the reader has a clear picture of the innermost workings of the characters and can better understand their motivations and impulses. In short, his multiple perspectives open up the story in Ghosting and make it multidimensional instead of flat and static. I’m going to be keeping this in mind as I work on my next project. What about you?