Cady, Jack. The Off Season: A Victorian Sequel.
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Pp. 304. Cloth, 6" x 8-1/2". $23.95. ISBN 0-312-13574-2.

The following review appeared 8 December 1995 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1995. This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by:

Dennis Eddings <>
Western Oregon State College

Jack Cady's The Off Season offers the reader a wildly improbable premise that, once accepted, leads to a wonderfully good tale. Part of Cady's artistry lies in his ability to make that premise acceptable. Judge for yourself: when the first white men arrived on what is now known as the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, the native Indians readily gave the white eyes land on which to build their town, Point Vestal, for the Indians knew that the land was cursed. (Anyone who construes this "generosity" as proof of the Indians' sagacity in putting one over on the white man has begun to catch on to Cady's wicked humor.) The nature of the curse? Point Vestal is subject to "time jumps," meaning ghosts from the past may inhabit the present. And inhabit it they do. Indeed, if one knows the way, one can jump back into the past without benefit of a DeLorean equipped with a flux capacitor. As one character puts it, "The key to Point Vestal . . . is that all the time is happening some of the time" (41). Past and present thus mingle freely in Point Vestal, with outrageous results. Since the original inhabitants were quite literally Victorians (the town rose in the 1860s and 70s), and since those original inhabitants still are active participants in the town, all that follows is indeed "A Victorian Sequel." Add to this mix a Presbyterian Parsonage that changes its location at will (or whim), and the stage is set for uncommon events.

Into this time unbound world comes Joel-Andrew, an excommunicated Episcopalian minister, and his dancing, multi-lingual cat, Obed, who can purr in Greek and becomes quite proficient in Chinese as the book progresses. Joel-Andrew is more than an unfrocked preacher he is a prophet and agent of the lord. He is also responsible for freeing August Starling, wife killer, from the ghostly past, thus releasing evil into Point Vestal for Starling, we discover, is an incarnation of Satan. The story centers on Joel-Andrews' coming to knowledge of the nature of Point Vestal, the nature of himself, and the true nature of good and evil. Indeed, the book climaxes in a literal battle between good and evil as Joel-Andrew and Starling square off on Main Street. This grand battle is fraught with outrageously comic side shows involving the U.S. Navy, talking porpoises, vindictive whales, ducks flying in formation, and the airborne Presbyterian Parsonage.

The Off Season concerns more than Joel-Andrew, however. It is also about the town and the efforts of five people who gather together, twenty years later, to write the history of those events in 1973-74 that led to the momentous battle between Joel-Andrew and Starling. They are writing "a true history and not an official one" (34) a distinction Twain would have liked and understood. In doing so they come to see that past and present are inextricably connected and that the true curse of Point Vestal is its own past. The upright, moral, duty-bound Victorians who created the town brought with them the same double standard eloquently described in Stephen Marcus's The Other Victorians. In the midst of Victorian propriety stand opium dens, houses of prostitution, smuggled Chinese laborers who can be thrown overboard in a pinch, and a thriving drug trade. The corrupt present, then, is revealed to be little more than an extension of a very corrupt past, as the following, very Twainian, paragraph suggests:

At Joel-Andrew's back, time jumps intensified, and while the time jumps were colorfully macabre, they were not unbeautiful before the music of the choir. The crowd watched, and it seemed there was very little to repent. Asian women wept above emaciated babies, while children lay with blackened hands and faces beneath the scorching scent of napalm. Street kids rapped, gave each other high fives, or lay stoned and dying in doorways. Disemboweled grandmothers, dressed in gaudy South American costumes, lay beside starved bodies of Africans, while oil rigs hovered in the far distance; and a babble of Middle Eastern languages argued above purring engines of Mercedes and Lincolns, above the exasperating cough of lungs burned by mustard gas. (271)
But why is the Mark Twain Forum reviewing this book? In his "Author's Note," Cady states:

Ever since I was a pup, I've been enamored with the works of Mark Twain. The book that follows is not an attempt to emulate the master, because that would be a surefire failure, a real dumb thing to do; and I am not a masochist. I had one thing foremost in mind when I wrote The Off Season. I wanted to write a book that would gladden the hearts of readers, but also a book that, if possible from the land of wit and poetry where all great writers surely go, my hero Mark Twain would enjoy reading.
Cady has succeeded admirably on both counts. This strikes me as a logical place to end this review, but I suspect the critical minds of Forum members will demand details. The question then becomes, why would Twain enjoy reading The Off Season? A full answer to that question would entail an extensive essay, which this review is not. Consequently a few general observations, more suggestive than definitive, will have to suffice.

One striking element of The Off Season that Twain would surely appreciate is Cady's masterful evocation of place. Twain incorporated physical setting as a significant player in his works with great skill and wonderful eloquence. Cady is no slouch in this regard. Anyone familiar with the Pacific Northwest recognizes the place Cady describes, as well as the in-jokes that go with that place the rain, the damp, Seattle. Indeed, Cady uses that "nativeness" with the same panache found in the best frontier humorists, who also deliberately exaggerated the worst of a situation in order to laugh at it and those who accepted common stereotypes about it. Twain may not have been too familiar with the Pacific Northwest (although he did pass through on his round the world trip in 1895), but he would certainly recognize Cady's technique in evoking and exploiting place.

Cady also displays another Twainian talent a wonderful ear for language, including the ability to spin remarkably vivid, apt and very frequently humorous similes. One character sits "serene as a robin on a nest"; Starling's march to success is "as surefooted as a mouse on Swiss cheese," while his "darkly handsome" visage is likened to "a friendly lawyer, or a solicitous used-car salesman." Cady also follows the Twainian manner of linking words in comically incongruous yet appropriate remarks: "She showed plenty of grief and cleavage." And Pudd'nhead Wilson would have no trouble adding to his calendar, "in any given population, a certain percent is born stupid and graceless. The worst of them go into politics." Such listing could continue, for this is a very rich book, but the basic point is that Cady's style would undoubtedly earn a sympathetic, approving nod from Mark Twain.

Perhaps the most Twainian aspect of The Off Season resides in the darkly humorous thrust of the tale itself. Cady's unsparing commentary on human foibles moves beyond humor into satire, and that satire is at times as mordantly grim as any Twain has given us. Like Twain, Cady seems to have little use for community officials. Point Vestal's town fathers react to any crisis by raising the sewage rates (a metaphor worth exploring). They are also more than willing to sell out to the devil (literally in this case) for profit. The ministerial association, confronted by a true incarnation of evil, can make no real decisions beyond endorsing commonplaces such as motherhood. Beyond such social commentary, Cady's delineation of the nature of evil is also resonant of Twain: evil "is a force generated by ignorance. It is a totally powerful force that through history has used some ugly tricks. Evil is not weak" (238). The darkness of ignorance fuels evil: "It was medieval, the stuff of witchcraft, of Inquisitions, of bigotry and intolerance. It was positive as the ebony face of history, the blackly laughing face of dogma and theocracy, the nighttime shine of satanic worship" (267; lines I find highly reminiscent of A Connecticut Yankee ). I don't wish to imply that all of The Off Season is this dark, but like Twain, Cady addresses some very significant issues within the crux of his humorous tale-telling.

(As an aside, I suggest that Twain is not the only authorial influence traceable in The Off Season. Point Vestal's isolated setting, with a dense forest at its back, is highly reminiscent of "Young Goodman Brown," an idea furthered by the story's focus on good and evil and Cady's own reference to "spectral evidence" on p. 139. Indeed, in many ways this book is as Hawthornian as it is Twainian, a most intriguing link that is worthy of extended exploration. There is also a scene right out of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," a story Twain would have liked and understood, as the Sherburn incident in Huckleberry Finn makes clear.)

Other Twain resonances could be traced in The Off Season, but I leave that task to members of the Forum. My hope is that the above is sufficient to encourage Twainiacs to take up Cady's book. It is a very good read, and I especially recommend it to those who are venturing forth to frozen Chicago right after Christmas. In the midst of the self-congratulatory idiocy of MLA (excluding, of course, the activities of the Mark Twain Circle and the American Humor Studies Association), a book this sane offers most welcome relief.