A Voice From the Pit: Brandon Hobson's Where the Dead Sit Talking
Where the Dead Sit Talking
I did some time in Oklahoma, but I never heard wind come ripping down the plain. In fact, my time in the Sooner State—the setting of this sad meander of a book—may be best summarized by a letter that Hobson’s protagonist receives from his recently incarcerated mother. “My time in here is boring,” she writes. “I’m trying to learn to live in this place. The food isn’t great. I wish I knew something to tell you.”
Where the Dead Sit Talking is narrated by a weird kid—kind of innocent, kind of ignorant—named Sequoyah. The story unfolds during Sequoyah’s stint as a foster child during his mom’s period in lockup. He lives with a weird couple called the Troutts, in a weird town called Little Crow, and shares a room with another weird kid named George, and there’s a weird, but also compelling, girl named Rosemary in a room down the hall. Some stuff happens—imagine a plot hybrid of Dickens and George Saunders—but I’m not going to tell you about that because I think what happens is less important than all that weirdness.
Let’s start with Sequoyah, who has some Native American blood and is largely gender-indeterminate, as evidenced by his occasional longing not for women, but to be one of them. Sequoyah is a kid whose soul is a dust bowl, and a habit of wearing eyeliner makes him a genetic splice of Holden Caulfield and Alex DeLarge. He’s sweet enough, but the occasional admission of violent fantasy makes you want to place him somewhere along the sociopath spectrum. (Okay, there isn’t one, but there really should be.)
Next there is his supporting cast: the Troutts, who fake religiosity so they can take in foster kids while simultaneously running the local book; Sequoyah’s roommate George, a budding novelist who is either slightly healthier, or slightly stranger, than Sequoyah, and who communicates as often by written note as by spoken word; and Rosemary, who shares a smidgen of Sequoyah’s Native American heritage and whose role in the novel is like that of the young women in much of Henry James’s work, whose impending social debuts create anticipation and conflict, though in Rosemary’s case this will amount not so much to a debut as to a descent into oblivion.
And last is Little Crow itself, which is mash-up of Faulkner, True Blood, and the Island of Misfit Toys. There is the student who practices witchcraft. The student who is suspended for masturbating in class. The student with a heart murmur who fries onions. Common bonds in town include a preternatural fascination with Rosemary, and a tendency to deliver anti-axioms that attempt to render the place’s moral vacuum:
“Nobody’s happy around here. Everyone would rather be dead.”
“We’re dying, so what does it matter?”
“We wanted to…be other people with other lives.”
This begins to hint at the novel’s vision. Sequoyah is more or less desperate for meaning, and so is everyone around him, which is why so many Little Crowians are engaged in attempts at meaning-making—art, photography, music, writing. You get the sense that these are all failures, however, and not even the N. Scott Momaday books that Rosemary gives Sequoyah in an act of racial solidarity quenches the need for something real of Oklahoma to be captured or logged.
Where the Dead Sit Talking, then—in its affecting affectlessness—is a Native American novel about the failure of Native American novels to bring meaning to Native American lives. For Sequoyah and Rosemary, the fact of their shared lineage is about as interesting to them as it would be to discover that they were both fans of the same mediocre death metal band.
But perhaps even a mutual limbo offers a kind of grounding: late in the book, the asexual romance story finds Sequoyah and Rosemary huddling together beneath the kind of brilliant, starry sky that is the saving grace of places like Oklahoma. Surveying the firmament, Rosemary says that it’s as though they’re living in the bottom of a pit, and the real world is up there in the stars. Reading Hobson is like being up in that heaven, fixed and distant, watching his characters scurry about in pursuit of their spirits and their fates.
J.C. HALLMAN is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.