Remember as kids how, on a hot and aimless summer day, we'd pry loose a stone or concrete slab to peer underneath? Spiders, worms, centipedes - bugs - scattered in panic when daylight's glare suddenly invaded their cool, earthy hiding places. We'd shiver and laugh, fascinated, repulsed and entertained by our discoveries.
Native Utahn Stephen Pett's pungent new novel has much the same effect."Sirens" is set in Salt Lake City, but not the pristine Salt Lake we like visitors to see, or the Salt Lake of white-collar enterprise, of quiet neighborhoods and Mormon meetinghouses.
Rather, "Sirens" is the first-person story - the "autobiography," really - of Carlos Cade. And Cade is a scrapper, a loner, a loser, a wanderer. He's bright but lost, trying to get a handle on his cruel, confusing life.
"In the telling he says at one point, `The secret is to invent yourself before someone else does,' " Pett says. And Cade's been trying to explain himself to himself for a long time.
He's Holden Caulfield in Gary Gilmore's shadowy, violence-prone world. Cade's best friends are small-time criminals. But, because of his youth and family ties, he also knows a few secrets - especially a few shockers pertaining to Lance Arthur, Utah's young governor, one regarding the death of a childhood friend during a hike in Salt Lake's foothills. Or are these "secrets" only perversions of events twisted by Cade's warped perspective?
The author is touring the West by car to talk about this, his first published novel, in trade paperback from Vintage Contemporaries, a division of Random House. A poet and short-story writer, Pett now teaches at Iowa State University in Ames , where he lives with his wife and sons.
However, his Utah roots remain strong (he's a descendant of pioneer leader Brigham Young), and his sense of the place - the city, the seasons, the canyons, the Great Salt Lake - shows in "Sirens."
"I was born and raised here, until I was 18 and went away to college," Pett said in a Deseret News interview. And even then, he stayed in the West, attending Colorado College in Colorado Springs. He returned to Salt Lake City for graduate work at the University of Utah.
He considers himself a Western writer.
"I feel deeply for Salt Lake, and there's a side of Salt Lake that wasn't being expressed." In writing "Sirens," he said, "I was interested in a modern sensibility, although with a coarser voice."
And Carlos Cade's tale is indeed rough. The language is bluntly profane, the story often sensual. If this were a movie, we'd be in solid R territory. But Pett's gritty style, constantly in the active voice, propels the reader through the pages and gives the telling a palpable immediacy.
"I wanted a sort of particle accelerator," Pett said, "so that this guy would become more and more compelling to the reader and his condition more urgent."
Pigeonholing the novel is nigh on impossible. Is it a revenge story? A mystery? A good-guys vs. bad-guys western in a modern setting? A psychological showdown - one man's struggle between his bad and better sides? The cast of characters is as diverse as Dickens, if not so quaint, and their mutatating names, nicknames and assumed names test readers as much as Tolstoy ever did.
But always at the center is Cade, as a boy and as a man, using people and being used. Remember your parents' warning about the company you keep, and the trouble you'll reap? That's key to Cade's whole life.
In devising the first-person narrative - which hip-hops back and forth, time-traveling over a 25-year period - Pett had to consider what to have Cade bring into focus for the reader, and when.
"How much is he going to reveal, how much is he going to conceal? In a few ways, he's trying to deceive himself and the reader at the same time," Pett said, "but Cade finally comes clean in the end."
Pett has tried his hand at novels before - one about early Utah has been laid away in a dark drawer - and has used the Salt Lake setting in other writing. But something was wrong when calling upon his own memories. "It always seemed like I was `recording,' " he said. And then he hit upon creating a perspective outside his own.
"The geography in `Sirens' is my geography, but this is not my personality." Cade is like people he knew - like people many of us have known. But Cade isn't Pett.
Like Cade, Pett grew up in a diverse Salt Lake neighborhood. But while the fictional Cade's family is impoverished, Pett says he was raised in comfortable circumstances.
"But from the time I could do it, I had to go to work, and my jobs were always the kind of more labor intensive, blue-collar jobs. I found that a pretty compelling world - unloading trucks, working in a warehouse, driving newspapers around from 12 to 8" in the morning.
Utah's predominant LDS culture is almost an unremarkable environmental fact of life in "Sirens," playing only an occasional role in the plot, which again seems to parallel Pett's life to a degree.
"Brigham Young was my great-great grandfather," Pett said, so the writer is in a way a Utah "blue-blood." "But I was not raised a Mormon."
The Mormon/non-Mormon polarization in Utah influences how people act, whether we want to make note of it or not, he said. Many of his friends who weren't LDS "sort of needed to announce they were not Mormon in a lot of their behavior. They smoked early, drank a lot early."
Role-playing and cultural clashes tug at his character Cade, Pett said. "He feels a great deal of resentment but doesn't quite know why."
Placing this story in familiar Utah surroundings seemed right to Pett; the story wouldn't have quite the same feel in an imaginary city of unspecified locale.
"It simplifies my work. The stage set is ready-made. But more than that, I'm interested in this place; its forces work on me, and I'm interested in how its forces work on other people.
"Besides, I've been all over the world, and Salt Lake is certainly as interesting as anyplace I've ever been."