(M.J.E. / Writings / Book Reviews / Thrillers /
Ives: Fear)

John IVES: Fear (1978)

Review by Michael Edwards - also appears on Amazon.com

Note: The heading for this novel is based on my own Pan Books edition; research on the Internet indicates that its original and usual title is Fear in a Handful of Dust. It also indicates that the author's real name is Brian Garfield, and that "John Ives" is a pseudonym. The novel was issued under the author's real name in 1985.

Appears on Amazon.com:
    Date : 11 June, 2000
    Rating : 4/5
    Heading : Amazing resourcefulness in most extreme survival situation.
Note: This version of the review is slightly expanded from the Amazon version, in the last two paragraphs only.

      27-year-old Calvin Duggai, found not guilty of five manslaughter charges by reason of criminal insanity, has been committed indefinitely to a Californian hospital for the criminally insane. A Navajo Indian, he had gone with five companions (one from another Indian tribe) into the Mohave Desert to look for brass shell casings ejected from Air Force planes during gunnery practice, and had driven out of the desert, stranding his companions there without water after a quarrel with the other Indian about whose witchcraft was stronger. Duggai had stranded them there to test whether the other Indian's magic could help them survive there.
      The mental hospital is pure hell for Duggai, who feels even more degraded and humiliated in that environment than he would have in a prison. It is especially alien to him, as an Indian who is expert in living in wild country.
      Five years after being committed, he manages to break out after being transferred to a lower-security facility - and he has one thought in his mind: to wreak vengeance on the four psychiatric witnesses at his trial whose testimony sent him to the hospital.
      In accordance with a carefully laid-out plan, he steals a pickup truck with a camper mounted on the back, and in turn visits the residences of the four people concerned, bailing them up at gunpoint, binding their hands behind them with coathanger wire and herding them into the camper, where he secures them hand and foot to fixtures and gags them, and locks them in: there is not the slightest chance of them escaping.
      Four prisoners, with obvious tensions simmering between them: Jay and Shirley Painter, whose marriage is falling apart; Sam Mackenzie (the main viewpoint character of the novel), half-Navajo and with an attraction for Shirley, which resulted in his wife committing suicide; and Earle Dana, the psychotherapist and writer whom the others regard as something of a quack, at whose dinner party things finally blew up between Jay and Shirley, which is what precipitated Audrey's suicide.
      Duggai drives the four of them in their mobile prison cell deep into the desert, where he releases and unties them, strips them naked and leaves them completely without any provisions whatsoever. He drives off, having used his revolver as a club to break Earle Dana's leg, thus leaving him immobile; but occasional distant growls suggest that the pickup camper is not far off, and that Duggai wants to watch them die, like a vulture.
      No-one could possibly survive in such a desert naked and totally without any equipment; but they manage to survive with very nearly nothing: their only tools to begin with are a folded plastic raincoat which Mackenzie managed to kick out the camper door as Duggai escorted him out, some brass ammunition shells he finds in the desert, which can be converted to knives, and Shirley's long hair, which has numerous uses. With this slender base, they manage to obtain ground water, using the raincoat to build a solar still, and to kill jackrabbits and lizards for food, whose body parts then give them further tools; and from there they make amazing achievements as they survive for day after day while working out what to do long-term.
      Eventually Mackenzie and Jay decide to hike out to the nearest highway perhaps a hundred miles away, taking half the raincoat, and all the time trying to evade the watching Duggai with his gun at the ready. They seem well on the way to freedom when they are confronted by Duggai, put into the pickup camper, and taken right back to where they began and stripped of everything again, including the plastic - and it seems they have to start all over again. Mackenzie's hopes, as increasing weakness and delirium overtake him, of overpowering Duggai and having his own revenge seem more distant than ever....

      The survival situation in the novel is probably the tightest I have ever read: four people, one with a broken leg, totally naked and without supplies (except for the couple of items they manage to scrounge) in an extremely harsh desert landscape described as "surrealist" - with a gunman hovering around who won't let them hike out. Surviving even a single day appears to be impossible; yet they survive amazingly long, and the novel shows great ingenuity in describing how they do this.
      I have a couple of gripes about the novel. One is that the author gets the phases of the moon wrong: he describes a new sliver of moon rising early in the night, and later on standing overhead in the middle of the night. This is impossible: a thin sliver of moon has to be close to the sun (that's why you only see the small sliver), and therefore it can only be overhead in daylight, and can only be in the east either just before or just after dawn. Making it a nearly-full moon would have solved this problem, but would have made things too visible at night and caused problems with the plot, which at times relies on the near-invisibility of things by starlight only.
      The other gripe is that the geography of the desert landscape is not clearly described, so I could hardly visualize it, and found it very difficult to follow some of the action, which relied strongly on the layout of things, especially when characters tried to navigate their way to a given destination without being seen by Duggai.
      Other than these things, however, the novel is very clever and quite readable, and integrates well the tensions between the characters with the mounting urgency of their increasingly desperate struggle to remain alive.

      My Pan paperback copy of this novel is simply called Fear, but research on the Internet shows it almost certainly to be the same book as the title listed by Amazon by Ives under the title Fear in a Handful of Dust. The years of publication are the same for both titles, the Vietnam war references are present in both, and the epigraph at the opening of Fear contains the phrase "fear in a handful of dust", from the poem The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. Also, plot references on the Internet I read are unmistakably similar to the plot in the copy I read. It therefore seems safe to assume that Fear is the same novel as Fear in a Handful of Dust, to whose Amazon page I submitted the above review.
      "John Ives" is a pseudonym for Brian Garfield, and the book was reissued in 1985 under his own name.

Michael Edwards,
Victoria, Australia.

E-mail me about this book.

      Click here if you need an explanation for the strange appearance of the e-mail address which will appear when you click on the e-mail link, or if you don't know what you need to do to make the e-mail address work properly.

Original text copyright (C) 2000, by Michael Edwards.

Further links

      Amazon.com customer reviews

      Amazon.co.uk customer reviews - this title is not listed on Amazon.co.uk.

      Search at AddALL.com for a used copy of Fear / Fear in a Handful of Dust:
           under the author's real name Brian Garfield;
           under the pseudonym John Ives.

    Introduction - Front page, which leads to Contents
    Web Site of Michael Edwards - Contents

Site Map
    Writings by Michael Edwards
        Book Reviews
                John Ives: Fear (this page)

This page created on Monday, 12 June, 2000.