Robert Vivian’s The Mover of Bones is an experimental set of stories loosely connected by a single event – a janitor, Jesse Breedlove, finding the bones of a murdered girl in the basement of an Omaha church. He takes the remains and heads out of the city. From there his story is abandoned, and he becomes something of a legend. This man and the supernatural bones of the girl make appearances in the lives of many others, some through direct contact, others only as a story.
From the deserts of New Mexico to the flood plains of Oklahoma, news of this event – is it a crime or a miracle? – reaches disparate lives. Though their stories are as unique, they are all outcasts of society and often reflect on similar themes in their lives – the role of God, preordained existences, and free will. They all feel an affinity for this strange janitor, who claims that he found the bones after he was visited in a dream by the girl and his mission was given by a higher power.
In one, a disaffected, sixteen-year-old girl from West Omaha walks out of her birthday party, not quite planning to run away, but simply wanting to leave. She encounters Jesse who gives her a ride out of town, finally showing her the remains of the unearthed girl. The experience is supernatural and religious, changing the girl in meaningful, yet ultimately undefinable ways.
In another, a womanizing man from Council Bluffs flees from a jilted lover who has sworn revenge. Hiding out in Reno he is amused to discover that a man very similar-looking to him has been murdered, and his would-be killer is in custody. But as he contemplates his life from a seedy hotel room, a strange man moves in next door with a sack of magic singing bones. This arrival causes him to reflect on the lives he has ruined, his own included, as he gets to the bottom of his compulsions and destructive life patterns.
Some of the storytellers sound like prophets telling of the miracle of Jesse and the girl’s bones, while others sound like daytime talk show guests describing life-changing events that occurred because of Jesse. One story is told by a murdered girl – though not the one Jesse uncovered, and another is told by a man who claims to have been resurrected by Jesse after a horrific car accident.
The closest we get to the truth of the strange situation comes form a journalist assigned to write on the story. But with only hearsay and wild tales from those who have briefly interacted with Jesse, he comes to reflect more on his own life, and how close he is, how close we all are, to the wanted man. He comes to conclude that sorrow and loneliness are the factors causing the janitor’s flight with the bones, and how Jesse is both blessed and cursed with the special knowledge that these factors are ubiquitous in life, though most of us are able to ignore them and lead relatively normal lives. This sorrow and loneliness are what unite all of the wide-ranging characters, and their insight into their situations coincides with Jesse’s, becoming a revelation for each of them.
Each story reads like a dream that moves of its own momentum, with characters that surrender to the experience without thinking before leaping. Some feel blessed by divine grace while others feel swept away having lost control. The facts of the stories are mixed with the narrator’s viewpoint, often leading to confusion about the truth, but it is in this hazy milieu that Vivian’s tales have the greatest impact. He strives for feeling over fact, giving even unfavorable characters a truth of their own that the reader cannot help but accept.
Often unnerving and unsettling but always deeply human, Robert Vivian’s novel takes everyday troubles and commonplace traumas and transforms them into transcendent stories of overcoming and redemption. While grounded in harsh reality, each story eventually moves into a supernatural space where fantasy is presented as fact and helps to bring peace to those suffering from too much of the real world in their lives.
The Mover of Bones is available at Bellevue University Library, located in the general collection. All books can be borrowed for 21 days with the option of renewal.