“Look at me, Poll,” he said. She looked at him. “That’s when you’re going to need every ounce of common sense you’ve got,” he said. “Just spunk won’t be enough; you’ve got to have gumption. You’ve got to bear in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or regard for justice. You’ve got to keep your mind off pitying your rotten luck and setting up any kind of a howl about it. You’ve got to remember that things as bad as this and a hell of a lot worse have happened to millions of people before and that they’ve come through it and you will too. You’ll bear it because there isn’t any choice – except to go to pieces.” (p. 141)
The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned.
Family man Jay Follet is called to his father’s bedside in the dead of night in the summer of 1915. Fearing the worst from his ailing father, Jay speeds through Tennessee backroads only to find a false alarm waiting for him at his childhood home. On his way back to Knoxville, however, his car malfunctions while on bad terrain and Jay is killed instantly by hitting his chin on the steering wheel. A Death in the Family, then, is about how his family deals with the grief of his loss. The narrative floats between his now widowed wife, his atheist brother-in-law and his eager-to-please son Rufus, as they come to terms with Jay’s death over the two or three days following the accident.
The thing I liked best about this book, in addition to how real it felt (author James Agee lost his father to an accident when he was six, some have called this novel autobiographical), was how good a job it did at putting you into the mindset of a child. There are flashback sequences from young Rufus’ point of view scattered throughout the book, delineated from the rest by way of being italicized. In these parts, Agee deftly captures the feeling of being a small child, a precocious child who only half gets things that he is told and ends up extrapolating meaning for words like “instantly killed,” “drunk,” and an “eightfoot embankment.” Rufus is an excellent reader surrogate as, through a child’s eyes, we have to look again at the world to see what is trying to be imparted to the boy. It’s also helpful given the time period the novel is set in, 1915, to have an inquisitive mind that wouldn’t take for granted some of the social mores and taboos of the era, allowing us to experience a way of life that has since moved on.
Agee is also blisteringly critical of organized religion and its role in helping grieving families. Most of this work is done through the character of Andrew, who is what we’d call either an atheist or more likely an agnostic, and for this reason is set apart from Jay’s wife Mary and her aunt Hannah, who are very devout. He warns her that if she starts falling down the hole of religious fanaticism after her husband’s death, it’s not likely that she’ll ever make it out again. Christianity is also demonized in the form of Father Jackson, who comes to officiate the funeral. Rufus and his little sister Catherine never really hear what the priest tells Mary and Hannah upstairs; they instead intimate through everyone’s tone of voice that she is subsuming her grief into devotion, rather than having it out in the world to be dealt with:
“And they felt that although everything was better for their mother than it had been a few minutes before, it was far worse in one way. For before, she had at least been questioning, however gently. But now she was wholly defeated and entranced, and the transition to prayer was the moment and mark of her surrender.” (p.272)
A lot of people seem to use their devotion like that, like a crutch that explains every single thing that happens. It’s defeatist. But enough about that. A Death in the Family is by no means a fun novel, but it is a very interesting one. Agee pours his real-life grief into the story, and it feels palpably real as a result. Definitely a must for someone who wants to understand how death changes people.
“That’s what they’re for, epitaphs, Joel suddenly realized. So you can feel you’ve got some control over the death, you own it, you choose a name for it. The same with wanting to know all you can about how it happened.” (p.158)
Total pages read since January 1st: 6798 pp.
Next up on the Resolution Project: James Dickey’s Deliverance (1970)