Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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A son dies. His parents grieve, and his siblings, one of whom narrates these pieces, these flashes of memory, which, in accumulation, serve as a novella, a narrative of mute suffering, anguish, terror. A father retreats, staying away, at work, for days, weeks, or lashes out with violence at his remaining children. The mother, more open in her grief, is overpowered by the sight of blood leaking from one of her remaining sons. The boy who died, he died by bleeding:
“He bled through every opening in his body,” our mother said. “His mouth, his nose. Even his little anus and penis.”
This is the image printed and reprinted across these pages. Siblings dream of it, of leaking, the unceasing flow. In their nightmares images, too, are the things the boy’s parents did to try and staunch the bleeding, such that the narrator imagines “fat wads of cotton stuffed into my mouth and nose,” unable to breath as he pours out of himself, dissipates and disappears.
There toward the end, “always bleeding—no platelets to clot, cancer of the blood, all that,” the boy was given a Superman suit, and he wore it to his death, those garish colors proclaiming an imagined invulnerability, soaked through like some relic of martyrdom, preserved.
Sandy Meeks’ mom, the night nurse, had washed Jesse’s body before her change of shift, our mother explained, laying the superhero suit on our front porch early next morning wrapped in a white towel. Our mother had put the shirt, unwashed, inside its original box...
This is a book thick with tragedy, a child’s illness spreading destruction across a family, from financial strain to cancelled insurance, kids acting out, perceiving the world as changed. The violence of a cruel teacher is, in the wake of the boy’s death, imbued with a broader brutality. The face of death peers through every window.
Writing offers something of a double catharsis, at once an escape and a means of penance, of taking on pain. Travis, our narrator, pens an anti-essay as punishment for disobedience in school, but, in the wake of his younger brother’s death, it becomes a release not only through imagination but also the physical pain his father brings to him, spanking him as he reads each line—rebellious, funny, triumphant, but, in context, also crushingly sad—aloud. Such is the unrelenting tone of this powerful book.
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