By John Michael Cummings
Stephen F. Austin University Press. 240 pp. $18
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Reviewed by Frank Wilson
One Friday night, at his mother's urging, Mark Barr phones his older brother, Steve, who is in the hospital and refusing to have an operation that could well save his life. Problem is, Steve "sounded out of his mind - going on about dying, making me promise to bury him beside Granddad." The next morning Mark learns that Steve in fact died later that night.
So Mark climbs into a Mercury Grand Marquis - apparently the only rental car left in Brooklyn's Park Slope that day - and heads home to Alma, W. Va. He hasn't been back for 11 years, and once he arrives, it's easy to see why.
Dysfunctional doesn't begin to describe the Barr clan. The paterfamilias, for sure, is no Ward Cleaver. Mark sums up his father's style of parenting thus: "My whole life had been decided not by my free will, but by a much smaller, exact force - those slaps to my face by his hand. In those impacts, I was knocked into position, shaped, and put on course."
Small wonder Mark's own life has featured "shouting at coworkers, putting my fist into bathroom mirrors, buckling plasterboard walls in efficiency apartments from West Virginia to Minneapolis - I had his anger in my veins . . . I was him. . . . "
As a school counselor points out to Mark, "on the one hand, your self-esteem is small, but on the other, your ego is big." That may help explain why Lisa, his girlfriend in Brooklyn, is on the verge of breaking up with him.
Mark is the youngest of three brothers. The deceased Steve had started out fine - "smart, athletic" - but then, one day, he took a rifle and started shooting at random from his bedroom window. It was all downhill from there: periodic institutionalization, loads of medication, "drinking and fighting in pool halls . . . a hundred pounds overweight . . . his charm and innocence gone, just another redneck."
Mark wants to honor the wish Steve expressed on the phone with him the night Steve died. But their dear old Dad has other plans: He wants his son cremated, and Mark's mother and his other brother, Greg, are willing to go along with that. Mark's best argument against it comes in the form of a cache of photos of Steve taken by Whitey Upton, a gay neighbor Steve had always spoken ill of when he was a kid. (Mark has odd feelings about gayness: "All my life, starting with Whitey, men desired me in a way women never did. . . . What did it mean that I felt sexual desire only for women yet made emotional connections only with men?" This, he tells us, both "mortifies" and "fascinates" him.)
Whitey's photos reveal a Steve unknown to his family - Mark tells Whitey he feels as if "I'm looking at a complete stranger" - and Whitey knows things about Steve his family did not, how he was involved in an addiction ministry, how he volunteered at an archeological dig at a nearby college.
Cummings' previous book, Ugly to Start With, was a collection of interconnected stories. In it, a certain wistfulness offset an underlying bitterness. Bitterness comes to the fore in this one, much of it grounded in something that doesn't get a lot of attention: rural poverty. Mark sees it up close and personal when he strolls through a section of Alma named after a long-vanished bar called the Little Brown Jug:
Houses were nothing but cinderblock shells. Frosty purple graffiti snaked around telephone poles and across dilapidated porches. There were no sidewalks, only a weedy shoulder strewn with old tires, flattened beer cans, and sparkling bits of green glass.
This was the "jerkwater Alma" his father had come back to after serving in Korea, only to marry "our simple, unexciting mother and missing his life's dream - whatever it was." Mark's mother is the tragic figure here, her looks long gone, her house a shambles, grief shadowing her every move.
This is a hard novel, less heartbreaking than heart-numbing. But it provides plenty of reason to keep an eye on John Michael Cummings. He may not indulge in Faulkner's Southern Gothic orotundity, but he does seem to have carved out his own private Yoknapatawpha.