Flower or Whip?by John Domini
(Stalking Horse Press, 2016)
You might call D. Foy’s Patricide a long and sorrowful aria over abuse in the home and its lingering damage; or you might call it a portrait of the scuffling white male, here in the U.S., detailing their recent tumble from King of the Mountain; or then again, it may be a scuzzball spiritual journey, Siddhartha Goes to AA, in which multiple addictions shred a young man almost to bits before he staggers to a kind of Buddhist enlightenment. The novel’s closing pages, I can say without spoiling a thing, are a sequence of zen koans: “Is our tongue a whip, or is our tongue a flower in its field of silence?” Yet while all these labels could fit, loosely, for my money the best way to understand this fiction is as an experiment.
Consider the way Foy presents the domestic abuse. In an ordinary novel nothing would so invite empathy as the belittling and bashing suffered by Patricide’s Patrick Rice (the near-rhyme seems no coincidence). This narrator is less than ten as the story begins, but already he’s got a strategy for when his mother gets violent: “I’d be lost if I did nothing, I knew, so I dug my fingers into [her] hand.” His father’s blows, however, can still surprise him — and the reader. One measure of Foy’s success is how, a hundred-plus pages in, his narrator can still shock us by going into dissociative third-person as “his father, as he had never done, punched him in the face with a full-on fist.”
Such stuff would seem to suit a conventional weeper. Just reaching his teen years, his first opportunity to break free, takes Rice fully half the text. The milieu too feels familiar, the houses and tech middle-class, outside the city enough for kids to sneak smokes in the brush and to shun the school’s lone non-white (Korean, the narrator discovers, in another poignant failure to connect). Besides that, true to Bildungsroman type, Patricide has the child glimpse the sins of his fathers, the ugly pattern of generations “poisoned […] by the union of my mother and the monster that was her father.” Yet despite all this Oedipal classicism, this book slaps around readers’ expectations almost as much as it does its narrator.
Foy destabilizes things in small ways, such as an opening set of chapters that anticipate the stutterstep ending. He doesn’t start out with koans, but he does briefly juggle a stoned childhood moment (the narrator begins doing weed at ten) and a difficult stretch of sober maturity, before settling into his pervading chronological structure. Another oddball touch is the use of initials to designate places (“in Y, where my trip through the dark began”) and leaving the rest of his family likewise unnamed. Rice’s own name only turns up in someone else’s voice, and rarely, but his brothers are never anything but X and Z. As for his parents, they may loom grotesquely, but they remain “the father” and “the mother.” Now, doesn’t such a trick risk creating a lot of redundancy? Redundancy, plus a dangerously formal rhetoric? Yes it does, yes on both, and so the style of Patricide proves, throughout, its wildest gambit.
Foy works against the prevailing currents of literary culture, refusing to be a smart aleck. His lack of irony doesn’t strip his hero’s journey of all humor, not when this child of the ’80s asks, hearing bad news: “how much did that totally majorly bite?” Still, throughout the early chapters this narrator treats everything with the same high-toned rigor, whether an unhappy incident in close up or a looser brooding on notions that preoccupy a child, such as “beliefs” or “wonder.” The bulk of the brooding concerns his father, naturally, in prose so unapologetically repetitious it recalls a psalm—or koan. The most common phrase is “O my father!” and even as the child grows more independent, his language can break into ecstasy:
His head, he realized, flowed abundant with stuff, a vast profusion of minutiae that always till now had manifested at the periphery of his consciousness as the sum of immateriality that, could he explain it, comprised what he’d thought of as the bounds of reality but which today he was somehow able to parcel into their constituent federations...
That particular mystic moment, as it happens, comes on the verge of Rice’s first toke of marijuana. He’s pedaling over to a friend’s with a baggie filched from his father, and so the vision reveals a kind of growth. In rhetoric itself expanded, the ten-year-old perceives his reality expanding; even as he lurches towards addiction, his education continues. Later, as young Werther gets stoned, the style relaxes a bit, making room for a word like “gnarly.” Still, the reading experience remains far from breezy, not with four solid lines of Rice’s buddy going “Ha! ha! ha! ha!” Not when his bike ride back so bums the boy out: “that wasn’t home. That was a lie. That was another broken link in [a] huckster’s chain of rickety crappy lies.”
Those lies, also essential to the boy’s dawning awareness, have to do of course with the collapsed American Dream. The nicey-nice suburb, in which every kid has a rad bike and every parent a loving touch, is another of the idols cut down in Patricide. By the time the narrator reaches his teens, he can’t get through the day without booze, blow, and more, and yet: “I was told I had a ‘better’ life than most […]” with “blessings plain, as any flag-waving American would agree.” Then too, flag-wavers prefer neighborhoods of one color; the story of the lone Korean in Rice’s school provides the coda, a touching reminiscence, for the night he first gets stoned. Further along in the novel, grown and sober, he finds his father withdrawn to the hills of some Border State. The yard alone proves a white-trash signifier, with “rolls of carpet and cans of paint […] busted faucets and toilets and sinks.” The old man, too messed up to make exec, has enlisted in Trump’s Army.
That yard description takes up most of a page, heaping reams of detail atop the excesses of style. It’s a daunting pileup, for some readers—but for me the stuff of the Watts Towers. To visit the Towers, too, a person’s got to travel through a slum, often violent, and yet the place proves transcendent. In the case of Patricide, I’m not always so wowed, not much moved by the zen of the closing pages, and disappointed by sketchiness of the women characters. Rice’s mother lived with agonies as painful as his father’s, yet she’s granted nowhere near the same depth; nor are the girlfriends. Nevertheless, Foy has brought off a new brand of the American tragedy, baroquely layered and yet defying gravity.
JOHN DOMINI's latest book is The Sea-God's Herb, selected criticism, and in 2016 he will bring out a new set of stories, MOVIEOLA!