In Frederik Peeters and Loo Hui Phang’s The Smell of Starving Boys, the words “virgin land” are used several times to describe America’s West. The idea is that this area is untouched, but photographer Oscar Forrest points out to his fellow expedition member Stingley, it is not untouched. It just hasn’t been possessed by white males yet.
This is the historical argument between those who see America as part of European culture’s manifest destiny and those who see Native Americans as human beings. To the manifest destiny crowd, there’s no way they can be wrong since, from their point of view, Native Americans are uncivilized and therefore beneath humanity. This is part of the culture’s racism, definitely, but it’s also mixed up with religious belief that saw Christian nations as civilized and anything else as barbarous.
That’s the broader context of this more intimate drama about a survey group wandering around Texas in 1872 with the mission of documenting the territory in anticipation of white settlers coming. Oscar is a photographer who’s job is to not only capture the landscape itself in his images but the local Comanche tribe. Oscar is a man with secrets, on the run from a past that contains scandals both personal and professional, and each scandal intersects with the idea of blurred reality.
That same blurred infects Oscar’s entire experience in Texas, and this sets the stage for a dreamlike experience that hearkens back to one of Stingley’s earliest comments to Oscar, speculating on the possibility that we all live in a dream. Oscar dismisses the notion, but everything that follows heightens that idea and brings up questions of perception that hearkens back to the white Eurocentric view of Native Americans and the secrets in Oscar’s past. It also tests Oscar’s understanding of his desires and the expedition’s assistant, Milton, who manages to defy not only Oscar’s expectations but the readers.
Perception is really at the center of The Smell of Starving Boys, and it wraps itself around topics like gender, sexuality, race, and imperialism in the form of a western, with the subtext of masculinity as a wild beast that has corralled itself into captivity. The tone reminds me of Picnic at Hanging Rock, as does the mysterious nature of the storytelling. Peeters’ art is clear, almost hyper-realistic, a presentation that works in opposite on the readers’ perceptions of the setting.
Peeters’ art embraces realism in such a way that small moments of unreality pack a punch, but the real question is what these small moments mean. Are they harbingers of something higher than reality, a philosophical level to our interactions that adds coded meaning to gestures and emotions? Or are they just the human brain trying to find patterns where there are none? Are we the sum of who we were or are we continually recurring as new selves? And is reality the result of different selves coming together, colliding in desire or distrust, and fashioning a universe that we perceive together momentarily, and then have to fight to keep as one existence?
John Seven is a journalist and children’s book writer living in North Adams, Massachusetts. His books include ‘A Rule Is To Break: A Child’s Guide To Anarchy,’ ‘Happy Punks 1-2-3,’ ‘Frankie Liked To Sing,’ and others. Find out about all his things at johnseven.me.