(Calamari Press, 2014)
Texas may be the southernmost point in the U.S., but it gets awfully cold. The chill pervades Larry McMurtry’s best novels, like The Last Picture Show (1966), in which the biting winds may carry away a young man’s soul. The same threat hangs over Brandon Hobson’s new slip of a novel, Deep Ellum. The plot meanders along beside the 26-year-old Gideon Gray, back home in the scruffy East Dallas neighborhood of the title. These blocks were legendary in blues history, and you could say that Gideon suffers like Sonny Boy Williamson: nine below zero, three o’clock in the afternoon. In seeking to reconnect with his family, mostly he comes to know its dysfunction.
These damaged personalities, hemmed in by harsh economics, mark Ellum as a radical departure from Hobson’s previous fiction, The Levitationist (2005). That little amuse-bouche spun a fairytale—the same sort of mind-bender as readers used to find in elimae, the magazine Hobson edited until 2012 (elimae, for the record, also published two of my short stories). In this new book, however, people lose touch with reality only via sleep, or booze, or pills. Their malaise is all too familiar.
Gideon has hustled down from Chicago (where he only “worked shit jobs” anyway) because his mother’s nearly overdosed on anti-depressants. An overdose also took his father, long ago, but those drugs weren’t prescription, and after that neither Gideon, his younger bother Basille, nor his older sister Meg got much parenting out of brokendown Mom or her second husband, Gene. Indeed, the stepfather may’ve added to the mess. The prodigal son, crashing at Meg’s, has plenty of time to rummage around, and he turns up more than one clue suggesting Gene got closer than he should have to Meg.
A therapist would term the children dual-diagnosis, and he’d warn Gideon against expecting much, but Hobson left in the title’s first word for a reason. “Deep” is just where this narrator wants to go, and as soon as he settles into his sister’s apartment “overlooking warehouses and ... the dirty street,” he begins trying to find out what Meg’s up to. He’d like to know who she’s with, especially, given the sketchy friends who show up at her door:
He blew on his hands. Pulled the hood ... of his sweatshirt, revealing a tangle of long hair .... He was older than me and had a scab on his bottom lip. It was cherry-dark and looked sore.
This “Charlie” does his own rummaging, and while he doesn’t lay a finger on Gideon, he walks off with some of Meg’s coffee, her mug, and a disturbing aside: “That girl—probably shooting something between her toes.”
Peeking from behind a curtain, Gideon gets a final glimpse; Charlie had an accomplice waiting. But then the hoodie comes up and the men walk off, never to be seen again. Much of the novel proceeds like this, in ad hoc encounters that, whatever tidbit of information they often, sometimes with a whiff of threat, won’t quite cohere. What emerges clearly, rather, is how this Gray family prefers to live in the dark. Basille may be the closest to true psychosis; the book’s most hair-raising recollection may be the younger brother’s threat to kill himself in middle school. But Basille at least links up a few details, for instance identifying Meg’s scariest connection, some sort of “dealer.” Meg, on the other hand, either stays out of reach or falls back on responses like: “Nothing important, really. Don’t worry about it.”
Gideon doesn’t learn much more when he spends a few days outside the city with his parents. Even incest must be read between the lines. Stepfather Gene comes across as more clueless than vicious, though he’s the one who produces a gun, towards what might be called the climax. The stepfather’s got a notion he’ll go after Meg’s new guy, but doesn’t this by itself express, ahem, unresolved conflicts? And what of Meg’s early attempts at fiction, which Gideon rereads and summarizes in one of book’s saddest passages. Even unfinished, the stories grow ever more disquieting:a new marionette named Sophia is ... placed on a shelf along with other[s] .... Some nights ... the owner’s son sneaks in and arranges the marionettes in various lewd positions.
Now, the list of stories ends carelessly. Gideon states the obvious, that “Meg was prolific writer,” and then goes on to claim her “inspiration came from a neighbor down the road.” The sister’s inspiration came from within, where you find creatures like sentient marionettes; that much would be obvious even to a brother who couldn’t confront any worse possibilities. Such clumsy rhetoric undermines a few passages, but then the pleasure of Hobson’s novel often lies in how Gideon, at first, gets things wrong. This is a drama of immanence, about the dawning of comprehension that’s been buried Deep.
Happily, too, misery isn’t the only truth that comes to light. The narrator may dawdle in denial, but eventually he comes to appreciate that the mother’s made it out of bed (with Gene’s help, no less), Basille’s agreed he should quit doing crank, and Meg’s at last admitted “I don’t fucking communicate.” As for Gideon, from the first his rollin’-stone quality has had a lot to do with his own connection to his sister—again over-intimate, and again a black mark against the parents. But at another point that might be the climax, and as ever by indirection, Meg and her brother may sort out crucial limits.
They may. To the end, uncertainty remains the rule, and some readers will find this hard to take. If you compare Gideon’s wandering to Holden Caulfield’s, you notice that Holden arrives at Christmastime hosannas, under a host of therapist-angels. But then, the Caulfields could afford a sanatorium. Gideon and his family have joined the crowd picking over the leftover crumbs of the American pie. All three kids work shit jobs, if they work at all. When the narrator lands a job in a guitar store, it’s minimum wage, and yet it’s the first sign of recovery. As for Gene, he had a union job, but in retirement he can’t even help Meg with the rent. The same impoverishment bites down hard on the younger Americans who populate other recent realistic fictions, also well-regarded, among them D. Foy’s Made to Break (2014) and Vanessa Blakeslee’s Train Shots (2014). If Deep Ellum achieves a dawning awareness, that awareness includes the devastated hopes, the shrunken horizons, for those whose lives remain largely before them.
JOHN DOMINI's latest book is a selection of criticism, The Sea-God’s Herb. A set of stories, MOVIEOLA!, willappear next year, and a novel in 2016.