Not a book for those with short attention spans, Behindlings is a colossus of digressions, distractions and circumlocutions. Readers who just want to sort it all out, see what happens in the end, demystify the mystery, etc., will be frustrated beyond belief. Those of us who revel in the use and abuse of the English language, however, will savor Nicola Barker's every delicious word.
Behindlings centers on the enigmatic wanderer Wesley. Witty, cruel, handsome and mangled, Wesley is followed for unknown reasons by a band of devotees he dismissively calls the Behindlings. These people whose ranks include a sandal-footed hippie, a grave old man, a rascally urchin and a tomboyish young doctor who may or may not be a spy for "the company" obsessively collect details about Wesley's life and day-to-day travels. A Web site disseminates this information except for the exclusive stuff jealously hoarded by individual followers. They know where he slept, what he ate for lunch, when he went to the library, how long it will probably take him to get into the head librarian's pants. He never speaks to them, but they follow him everywhere. To ask why they follow him is missing the point. Barker, a British wunderkind whose Wide Open won the coveted IMPAC award in 2000, writes like nobody else. She doesn't so much prowl around an image as palpate it, grope it blindly from every angle until she discovers its shape. Nothing escapes her scrutiny, or her exhaustive description. A typical sentence reads, "And while he continued to grasp helplessly for this infernal word that evaded him so absolutely, his eyes previously glazed and grey seemed to moisten and widen (their pupils dilating), his cheeks (previously sallow and sunken) grew ripe as sugared plums in an autumnal pudding (a crumble, a fool, something tart, something hot, something sticky), until he looked like a man who'd swallowed down a large lump of gristle much too quickly without chewing properly."The novel's real subject, it seems, is the joy of the chase: As the Behindlings close in on Wesley, Barker spirals ever more frantically toward the perfect metaphor. Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.