The Killing of Butterfly Joe defies categorisation. It’s of no known genre, original and unsettling. The reader has nothing to guide them, no comfortable stereotypes or clichéd plot lines to help them through.
When after 50 or so pages I told my wife I was not sure I could finish it, she agreed. She had given up at that point too. BUT I think she made a mistake.
The Killing of Butterfly Joe is described on the cover as a wild eyed crazy road trip across America. But that’s just an attempt to classify it, to put it in a mould and make it easier for the reader to digest. It’s not a road trip at all.
The Killing of Butterfly Joe is the story of a broken family, and about what it means to grow up. Lew, aged 23, visits his aunt in the Catskills, New York state. Dozing over a novel by the riverside he is entranced by the appearance of Butterfly Joe and his semi-naked female accomplice. They steal his book, only to return it later, and invite him to work for their family business selling butterflies.
Lew agrees. They christen him Rip after the hero of the stolen book, and he goes to live in their ramshackle gothic house in the mountains. But it’s not a gothic tale despite the fact that Joe’s mother is a disfigured monster. She was scorched and scarred in a house fire because Joe rescued his father’s butterfly collection first, having been told by his dad how valuable it was. Only then did he pull his mother out of the flames!
The father is long gone, abandoning his family so he can collect and study lepidoptera. The mother is bitter and angry, and will have no mention of him in the house. She has poisoned her children against him.
There are two sisters. The first is the water nymph, erotic and sexy. The second, Isabelle is more prudish. Puritan might be a better word, moral would be best. The protagonist learns through experience what these differences mean, and eventually realises which is for him.
But these two are minor characters. The book is about Joe, a larger than life figure with a comic kind of verbal diarrhoea and challenging philosophical views. Joe really does tithe, giving away ten percent of all he earns, but never to a charity or an official organisation. He is generous to ordinary people, not always the poor. It’s just the abundance of God.
Rhidian Brook is a regular contributor to Thought for the Day, a five minute slot on Radio 4 morning news. Butterfly Joe fits this mould: he is not perfect but has a Christian message for the modern world. He shows disdain for organised religion and the hypocrisy of institutions, and is in touch with the truth and spirit of the gospel. Of course this is especially relevant in the USA where organised religion has become so politicised and moral rules so entwined with social conformity.
I liked the way the character of Joe challenged orthodoxy in this way. The ideas were not new, but the message was clear and pretty sound.
Joe is desperate to make a living from his father’s butterflies. He sells parts of the collection, and breeds more, setting them in display boxes in the family house, which is also a butterfly factory. But on the road, selling, he won’t bend to the rules. That would be to give in to convention, and to deny his version of the truth. It’s inevitable that he will land in trouble, and he does. He is jailed, accused of selling mounted specimens of rare and protected species. Rip decides the only solution is to find Joe’s father who had collected the specimens in the 60s, before it became illegal.
Rip is confident he can reunite the family and rescue Joe at the same time, but he discovers that this might not be as easy as he thinks. Feelings run deep, and he is in over his neck.
The Killing of Butterfly Joe is a first person narrative, written by Rip in his jail cell. This device does create some suspense in fairly obvious ways, but I wasn’t really gripped by that, and the plot and resolution is a bit weak.
But this is a book about character and ideas. And they are interesting. The characters embody moral values in a simple way: eros and agape, motherhood, compassion. But there is more than that. Joe is complex, broken by his father’s absence. Mary, eros, needs to be loved. Isabelle also wants to please her father, even though she refuses to meet him when she has the chance.
In this respect The Killing of Butterfly Joe is a book about families, about what they mean, and how important they are, how they make us what we become.