About a year ago, I learned that I’d been named co-winner of the 2010 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest, for A Gardener on the Moon. Months went by, my book was published, and I kept wondering who my fellow Klonskyite co-winner was. Two weeks ago, the wait ended with the publication of Retina Green by Reinhard Filter — and what a super read it is. Every word counts in this trim, lean and beautifully written feat of storytelling. It’s as if Filter took his manuscript for workouts at the gym — not a gram of verbal fat on the bone, not a wasted word anywhere. Retina Green tells the story of Henry, an executive at a power company who obeys his boss and stonewalls a coroner’s inquest into the electrocution death of a young girl. In despair, the girl’s mother commits suicide. Henry, sensing the enormity of the wrong he’s done, begins to unravel in rage. He loses his job and starts his downward roll from respectability to a seedy flophouse to a shack in the city dump with a fellow down-at-the-heels homeless man named Torben Lipp. Torben’s as bright as the glint of a razor. He knows survival skills that most of us hope we’ll never have to learn. Torben also knows that Henry hates himself for provoking a grieving mother’s death. It’s when Torben starts to exploit the fury that’s eating Henry alive that the story moves toward its startling conclusion. It ends with a rare thing in fiction — a dramatic surprise ending that’s believable and really works.
Maybe that’s because at the heart of this often witty novella is a serious battle between redemption and revenge. Henry made me think of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a man who thought that his superior intellect gave him rights denied to other human beings, including the right to kill — until he does it and comes unstrung, then later confesses his crime and seeks redemption. In Retina Green, Henry also buys into this Great Man status conferred on him as a power broker at the inquest, but when he causes someone’s death, he, too, comes apart until he realizes — maybe too late — that beyond self-loathing is a desire for redemption — in his words, “for a better purpose.” In the novella, Filter often alludes to another literary great — Captain Ahab, hell-bent on revenge in Melville’s Moby Dick, and he points to the futility of going down in rage with that metaphorical white whale. The book leaves us wondering if forgiveness is possible among desperate people — and it does all this with wit, insight and poetry. This is Reinhard Filter’s first novella. I’ll be looking forward to the next one.
Reinhard Filter’s Retina Green is published in Toronto by Quattro Books.