Zach Worton’s The Curse of Charley Butters begins with a mystery, but soon shifts gears to the more immediate story — that of the investigator and the devastating effect the mystery has on his life while suggesting that the drive to solve the mystery is the symptom of a problem that is already there.
Travis is an unassuming guy, a little dopey but lovable, who plays in a metal band with a couple friends, but it’s not really his calling in life. More to the point, Travis doesn’t seem to have much of a calling until he goes on a music video shoot in the woods and discovers an abandoned cabin. Inside is an immaculate living space filled with versions of the same paintings over and over, and a pile of handwritten diaries. An impromptu reading satisfies his friends, but the words, by an artist who finds it increasingly hard to deal with life, resonate with Travis and his obsession grows into an official opportunity to delve further into the mysteries of the journal writer, Charley Butters.
Part of what resonates about Butters with Travis is that he struggles with dissatisfaction at his own situation, though he doesn’t entirely realize it. There are lots of irritants for him, most notably his childhood friend and bandmate Mike, with whom he spars over their metal band. Mike functions as ground zero for Travis’ disdain, which is really a manifestation of his own self-loathing, which stems from being an aimless 37-year-old guy working at a record store.
But if Butters’ diaries at first provide an alternate narrative within Worton’s novel, following Butters through his breakdown and alienation from normal life, it’s not the central concern of Worton, and the middle section of the book shifts its focus to Travis and his failings. And what mysteries are eventually unveiled prove to be somewhat less compelling than Travis had believed they would be.
The title suggests a curse that guides Travis’ future, but Butters is more a catalyst for what unfolds. The curse, if that’s what you want to call it, already exists within Travis, a disease festering, waiting, and the longer it goes unattended, the heavier it strikes him down when it manifests as a force.
Perhaps the worst things that happen from Travis’ exposure to Butters’ diaries aren’t the actual things that happen in the story, but the spiritual ones. Travis obviously identifies with Butters’ story as a creative person whose life goes south, but one who comes so close to recognition for his work and whose descent functions as an enticing tragedy for latter-day onlookers like Travis.
But finding the story that becomes so meaningful to him is the way that Travis becomes derailed from making that story happen for himself. His obsessive devotion to Butters story negates the possibility of that identification following through.
It’s a heavy premise that wraps around some depressing circumstances, but Worton is able to pull it off with some comical asides, both in dialogue and art. When things take their darkest turn, it’s presented with an over-the-top slapstick aspect that not only keeps the reader from getting too dragged down by the story but questioning why you’d want to read a story about Trevor in the first place.
That’s good because while we’re not all Travis and Travis is not necessarily an Everyman, there is some of him in many of us. It is harder, especially as you age, to be creative with the sole purpose of expressing yourself, with that being creativity’s own reward. When you’re young, you have your creativity narrative for yourself, and explaining the reality of the roads you took can be a haunting experience. You look to make some sense of it and in relation to Travis’ story, it’s best to not become bogged down by such a diversion, allowing your own failures to become that weights that crush you.