Eleanor Lerman’s odd, compelling novel Radiomen, published by Sag Harbor’s The Permanent Press, can lay claim to showing its author’s skill as a poet. Especially in its bleak descriptions of abandoned stretches of Rockaway Beach and industrial Queens—empty lots, old summer bungalows in ruin, the “remnants of building foundations looking like jagged concrete teeth rising out of the sandy soil.” Lerman knows how to create original similes that effectively convey the ominous and depressed mood of this strange but absorbing tale. “One by one, like nails being pulled from a great, dark wall, dawn was beginning to remove the stars from the sky.”
Though the narrative proves engaging—Lerman knows how to set up suspense—it’s the unconventional subject matter that proves most intriguing. Radiomen brings together an unlikely assortment of people and situations—a skeptical talk radio host, a series of dogs who seem human, shadowy presences that may be aliens, a malevolent psychic, hitmen, a West African professor of French literature—all seen through the eyes of the middle-aged narrator, Laurie Perzin, who bartends the night shift at Kennedy Airport. Laurie, who had a lonely childhood and then a rootless hippie life, is aimless, uncommitted: “if there was anything I was really good at, it was finding ways to avoid what I didn’t want to think about.” Still, she’s sharply observant, reliable and sensitive to the plight of others.
Half bombed on wine one night, she calls in to a radio show. The program host’s mission is to debunk the supernatural. A psychic is on, Ravenette, who seems to know that Laurie will call in. Hard-nosed, independent, indifferent to potential danger, Laurie nonetheless is curious enough to meet with Ravenette, who turns out to be a key player in a cult called Blue Awareness, a group that traces mankind’s beginning to an ancient alien race that evolved into Dogon culture (in what is now Mali). The cult founder, now dead, left his mantle to his son, a Jim Jones kind of character who brainwashes acolytes into promoting and protecting the cult, by all means. The Blues say they are superior beings, chosen by the ghosts of the ancient culture to channel future mankind.
It seems that Laurie’s uncle Avi, long dead, was a genius electrical engineer who taught his young niece a bit about radio technology. One night, when Laurie was six and living on the Rockaway Peninsula, Avi was working on getting signals from other ham operators and picked up an odd trace. He left Laurie for a few moments to go to the roof to adjust an antenna. In his absence, Laurie thinks she may have seen a shadowy, faceless presence come near the radio and fiddle with the dials. How could that be? The “radioman” must have been a dream. When Avi comes back, he asks Laurie if she moved the dials. She says no, but mentions nothing about the shadowy figure. This memory or dream or hallucination haunts Laurie and it comes back with a vengeance after she meets Ravenette. The psychic tells Laurie that an engram, a false memory, has stayed with her all her life and must be purged in order for her to move ahead.
To confuse matters even further, an African neighbor whom Laurie befriends comes to thank her, by way of giving her a rare breed of dog—an animal that traces its ancestry to the Dogon culture. The dog will be one of several who mysteriously appear to protect Laurie. Could it be that there really are beings from another time, another place? And could it also be that they want to return whence they came, rather than instruct the Blues? In any case, the Blues become increasingly menacing the more Laurie tries to figure out what happened that night long ago in Rockaway. A tough, self-aware rationalist, Laurie finds herself straddling the worlds of the psychological and the paranormal. Radiomen may be science fiction, but it’s hardly a predictable or typical example of the genre. It may well appeal to those who think they never would read such pop lit and enjoy it.