Author:John M. Cummings

Publisher:Stephen F. Austin State University Press

ISBN: 978-1-62288-078-2

In my college days, I attended at a seedy 42nd Street movie house, for reasons of my own, a double bill of The Grapes of Wrath and Tobacco Road. The sense of depression and despair generated by this incredible film pairing was not totally unlike the feelings engendered in me at times by John Cummings’ harrowing account of what happens when one of the brothers Barr, Mark, travels from New York to West Virginia on the occasion of his brother’s death.

Mark has not been home for a while, but little has changed since his most recent visit except that brother Steve is no longer around. And, as the reader becomes acquainted with life with the Barrs in West Virginia, one has to wonder whether Steve was perhaps the lucky member of the family. Dysfunctional doesn’t begin to describe the family residue that Mark finds upon his return.

The novel’s central conflict involves the old rot-or-roast dilemma faced in dealing with the dead. Mark, who has been away a lot, is arguably disqualified from voting, but his brother’s plea on the eve of his death, which also supplies the book’s title, leads Mark to favor burial; Mark’s father, who from start to finish is an unvarnished monster, wants his son incinerated with the byproduct maintained in an urn. Mark’s fallback position is the scattering of ashes.

Don’t expect a story of how a son leaves his humble origins, travels to the greater Big Apple (Brooklyn) to savor the good life only to regretfully revisit his ancient hometown, realizing how wise he was to have made his northern move. No, Mark, even thus transplanted, is fully as disabled as the rest of the Barr clan. A search for heroes in this novel is largely unrewarded to the point where the equivalent of the village idiot comes fairly close to the title.

At one point in the story, told in the first person/past tense, the father’s insistence on cremation and the deceased’s pre-mortem plea to preserve “evidence” suggested that this was going to be a mystery thriller about the circumstances of Steve’s death. I was greatly relieved when this turned out to be not the case because the author clearly has more significant emotional fish to fry. In the later parts of the book, there are scenes in such unlikely settings as Home Depot, ice cream parlors, and drug stores that are truly wrenching in their exposure of the emotional underbellies of the characters involved. A trip to the hospital, not usually a cause for celebration, is welcome only because of the absence of grime, neglect, and decay that pervades most of the novel’s other settings.

The telling of this tale demonstrates a linguistic and emotional range and sensitivity that are truly remarkable, almost too remarkable. In addition to a mastery of metaphor, there is an even more pervasive infatuation with simile to the point where the use of “like” would outdo today’s teenagers in their most street-careless conversational modes.

The author micromanages his narrative with a magnifying glass much stronger than Mark’s mother’s. For example:

She handed me the dustpan, heavy as a dumbbell, with decorative piecrust-crimped shoulders and deep beveled sides spotted with rust and the sawed-off, toy-red-stained wood handled broom. Most of its corn-colored bristles had been burnt away, leaving a blackened stump.”

At times this informational gorging is done at the expense of basic plot clarity. For instance, exactly when was Steve cremated and exactly when was Mark made aware of it? This means more to the reader than the details of the dustpan. The novel has no sex scenes. Given the author’s obsession with detail, this is probably a good thing.

Another excess, in this reviewer’s view, relates to the author’s references to color. It is rare to find a descriptive paragraph that does not have a number of color references close to the number of lines in the paragraph. I’m reminded that both The Grapes of Wrath and Tobacco Road were in black and white and still managed to make their points.

Oh Dad, poor Dad, Mark has really hung you in the closet and is not feeling all that sad. The following statement of parental responsibility for a child’s coping difficulties ranks right up there with Jane Fonda’s blaming her father (real and film) for all her problems in On Golden Pond, to which mother Katherine Hepburn wisely responded, “Bore, bore, bore.”

My whole life had been decided not by my freewill, but by a much smaller, exact force—those slaps to my face by his hand. In those impacts, I was knocked into position, shaped, and put oncourse. Every thought and action from then on came from fear, shame, or desperation. Every limit I put upon myself was based on a self-image weakened and reduced by him.”

Despite its excesses in certain areas, this book hits some basic human relationships with power and artistry. The author’s linguistic imagination and abstractive abilities grace almost every page. I’ll leave you with one, out of many, of my favorites:

The night was a tower of time, the hours ahead like a sharp pinnacle I would impale myself on, or miss altogether and fall headlong into blackness. All my life it had been like this, my moods going to hell in the day, turning insufferable at night, the next day never coming fast enough, each hellish unmedicated day preferable to the night.”