WITH MOM AND DAD, IN HELL
by Richard Slota
A review by Christopher Bernard
Not every writer exploring the family drama in its more harrowing manifestations—in this case, one so horrendous it might seem like a morbid delusion yet may reflect the experiences of more families than one would like to believe—has invented an ingenious way to handle it that makes it endurable, human and even funny without softening its awfulness. But, in his first novel, poet and playwright Richard Slota has achieved this very remarkable thing.
Tales so terrible must often be cloaked in deep fantasy to be faced at all; their starkness is too hard to look at directly—like staring directly at the sun, it can make you unable to see anything else again.
Slota’s solution has been to concoct, amid a crew of intriguing eccentrics, a brilliantly imaginative fantasy, blended with a dash of dark humor and unexpected displays of lyricism, to explore his gothic family horrors.
The story’s narrator, Patrick, is a man in early middle age locked in a (quite literally) dead-end job in Santa Barbara, California: he picks up the bodies of people who have just died and delivers them to morgues and mortuaries for a set fee per corpse. When still an adolescent, he served in the military during the Vietnam War as a performer of autopsies, so he is much experienced with death as a physical, practical reality.
He is married (in a second marriage, to a woman named Lynn, who must be as game and patient a human being as ever appeared in a first novel) and has two children, Helen, a bright, athletic teenage daughter by his first marriage who lives with them, and an adopted, fun-loving African American boy named Mike. He also has a sense of humor (bleeding into sarcasm at the first cut), thankfully for his family, himself and his readers—though it occasionally lays a redolent egg. (To his credit, Patrick is aware of this, the inability of himself, or his creator, to resist recording it, notwithstanding.)
On one of Patrick’s body pickups, during the summer of 2000, he passes on the road a strangely familiar-looking young man wearing an outdated Marine’s uniform (Santa Barbara is near a military installation), who gives Patrick a pointed look as he passes, and who, over the next few days, keeps cropping up at odd moments and in odd places, with the same penetrating gaze.
About the same time, Patrick gets a call from his young, estranged brother: their father has just died. Not long after this, there is a knock on the door: it is the strange Marine. But it is not just a Marine: it is Patrick’s father when he was in the service decades ago, during World War II, before his marriage to Patrick’s mother; before Patrick was even a gleam in the young man’s eye.
And he is no hallucination: the rest of Patrick’s family can see him as well, and he talks and knocks about their house with all the awkward courtesy of a callow farmer’s boy whose manners have been polished in boot camp. The young man has been resurrected at the same moment his older self was dying, almost as if he could start to live his life over again, perhaps even avoiding, this time, its earlier pitfalls.
The author makes no attempt to impose the logic of either world on the other (the “dream world” of the Marine, where it is August 1942, or the “real world” of Patrick and his family, where it is 2000), but shrewdly and for the most part successfully splices together the two worlds, allowing each to dominate at different points in the story, bringing them together in a headlong series of confrontations at the finale.
It so happens that the younger version of Patrick’s father, George, appears at the time in his life when George’s own mother is dying in the same place, Sioux City, Iowa, where George will die and be buried fifty-eight years later—and young George needs to get there as soon as possible if he hopes to see his mother still alive. Patrick wants to appear at his father’s funeral in the same city, so he suggests that they all—his family and his young father—drive cross-country together.
And thus begins—complete with car death and car theft, hair-breadth escapes from white-supremacist bigots and a dizzy array of weird roadside attractions and pie-eyed “characters,” along a Route 66 brought back to life just for this trip careening between Patrick’s and young George’s worlds with results that are comic and terrifying, touching and dramatic, on this roller-coaster ride from the west coast to the heart of the midwest, as we are shown, in desolate town and chaotic city, jungles of prejudice and deserts of stark loveliness, in scenes at road-stop cafes and grease-jockey gas stations, the monumental changes that have occurred between the two eras, some mainly for the better, some decidedly for the worse—what may be the strangest road story in all of American fiction.
At the heart of the novel, driving the reality as well as the fantasy, is the drama between Patrick, on one side, and his parents and the rest of his family on the other: the common enough story of bitter rivalry and unacknowledged need for love between father and son, but a more shocking and horrifying one in a tale of incest, revealed in exquisitely painful details, between the beautiful young mother and her very young son.
During Patrick’s early manhood, after realizing how much emotional damage the childhood incestuous relations with his mother (initiated by her) had caused him, he confronts his mother by means of a letter meant for her eyes alone. Her pathological lack of consideration for others has not withered with time, and she shows the letter to the rest of the family, in an attempt to forestall Patrick’s dissemination of his accusations—something he claims he had never intended to do. Patrick’s extended family refuses to believe the incest ever occurred, and blames him for making false accusations and attempting to destroy the family. So, by acclamation, and without giving him a chance to defend himself, he is summarily thrown out of the family.
Thus, his appearance at the funeral, where his estranged family and his mother, who is still alive, will also be—to say nothing of the young Marine, and to add even more spice, Patrick’s bitter ex-wife—will lead to a fugue of confrontations, revelations, bizarre plot turns and climaxes, a balancing act that will take the very highest skill to bring off. To be frank, at this point the story sometimes loses some of the nicely handled balance, as well as the psychological credibility (despite all the story’s fantasticality), that it has generally shown up to now. And when the cause of the mother’s incestuous inclinations is suggested to be a kind of underground family tradition, poisoning by custom and wreaking havoc by habit, the reader can be excused for suspecting that a deus, or rather a diabolus ex machina has been drafted to the story’s rescue.
Much of the novel’s strength lies in Slota’s handling of the story’s layers of fantasy-projection versus “reality”: the author handles, for the most part skillfully, the question of whose fantasy has priority at any given moment or who is projecting what fantasy when: for example, young George often claims that he is the one who is “making up” Patrick and his family, rather than, as the reader first believes, the other way around—and in a way, of course George is not wrong, since, in a few years of his time, he will, in truth, be a primary cause in the physical creation of Patrick. And the whole idea of the projection of your own fantasy turning around and claiming to be fantasizing you into existence can have a pleasantly giddy effect, a little like one’s first drink of strong liquor.
There are a few structural weaknesses: the story does not really take off until the road trip begins; much of Part 1 could have used tightening; even later in the story, I felt myself reaching for my blue pencil more often than I should have. The author sometimes seems to feel he needs to give us a minute-by-minute account of his story, when there are a number of passages that could have been condensed or dropped. One detailed description of the monotonies of a long automobile journey is fine; three or four are not. They periodically destroy the story’s momentum, which then must be rebuilt from near stasis.
One thing that irritated this reader was the phonetic spelling of young George’s half-literate speech: it regularly got on my nerves and never failed to seem condescending toward the character; it also turns him into something of a cartoon and thus hurts the sense that he is real, even to Patrick. And if he does not seem entirely real, his relationship with his son (who, for all his own manifest eccentricities, always seems credible) will also not seem real, and thus be without significance.
Aside from these cavils, which are the kinds of weaknesses to be expected from a first novel, the story remains strong enough to carry, with gathering momentum, the reader along to its witty, unexpected, yet satisfying conclusion—a conclusion suggesting, like many of the best, that another story is just beginning.
Christopher Bernard is a novelist, poet and co-editor of Caveat Lector. His most recent book is the poetry collection Chien Lunatique. His novel Amor i Kaos is being serialized in Synchronized Chaos.