Terri Jentz’s Strange Piece of Paradise (June 2006)
A harrowing, true tale of how the author narrowly survived an attack by an axe-wielding maniac while camping in 1977. The traumatic event transformed her life and forced her to reflect on the rise of the serial killer that has marked the last quarter of the 20th century.
If the story weren’t so eerie, so American, and so well documented, anybody might assume that Terri Jentz’s new book was a work of fiction.
In 1977, Jentz and a female companion ventured out West hoping to “find themselves” as they biked across the country. Filled with nostalgic notions of America, the two Yalies pitched their tent in an Oregon campsite on day seven of what promised to be an epic journey. That night, a man drove over their tent before jumping out of his truck with an axe. He attacked the pair and severely gashed Jentz’s arm while almost killing her companion.
The story is horrific in its minute details and often leaves you numb. While the narrative is stunning, it is Jentz’s language that makes the book soar. Jentz’s languid flourishes echo her long journey, and her elegant candor reminds one of Truman Capote.
For 15 years, the author tried to bury her trauma. But in 1992, Jentz embarked on a quest to find some answers. She revisited Oregon with a friend and interviewed everyone she could. The madman was never caught; with a three-year statute of limitations on attempted murder in Oregon, Jentz started her journey knowing that justice could never truly be served.
A screenwriter, Jentz has a knack for capturing vivid moments that can jack up the literary tone into a feverish frenzy or downshift breathlessly tense scenes into a quiet, contemplative hum.
This tone doesn’t limit itself to simple reportage or memoir. Jentz is comfortable theorizing about America’s own obsession with violence. She reminds us that the term “serial killer” didn’t enter the language until the media-sensationalized bloodshed of the late 1970s made it necessary. The reader ends up wondering if our culture reviles or secretly cherishes the violence it creates. Strange Piece of Paradise doesn’t make sweeping judgments, but it reminds us that violence is always a communal affair, with more victims than you might at first realize.
– Hrag Vartanian
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