A Death in the Family

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James Agee, 1938

“When grief and shock surpass endurance there occur phases of exhaustion, of anesthesia in which relatively little is left and one has the illusion of recognizing, and understanding, a good deal. Mary had, during these breathing spells, drawn a kind of solace from the recurrent thought: at least I am enduring it. I am aware of what has happened, I am meeting it face to face, I am living through it. There had been, even, a kind of pride, a desolate kind of pleasure, in the feeling: I am carrying a heavier weight than I could have dreamed it possible for a human being to carry, yet I am living through it. It had of course occurred to her that this happens to many people, that it is very common, and she humbled and comforted herself in this thought.” (278)

Many would label this book ‘depressing’ but I would argue that this is a beautiful novel. This book approaches a reality – an inevitability of life: that death comes to all – with a purity of voice that is simply captivating.

There is no better way to say it: this is a beautiful book.

The plot is fairly simple. Jay Follet, a young man in his 30’s and a father of 2 in Knoxville Tennessee of the early 20th century suddenly dies in the middle of the night in a fatal car accident. The first half of the novel builds up Jay’s relationship to his family with charming gestures such as making the sheets for his wife as she cooks him breakfast, an evening spent alone with his young son, and his thoughts about his drunk brother’s desperate need for his assistance alongside their father’s ailing health. The second half of the novel explores the shock of his death upon his wife and her supportive family as well as his children’s struggle to understand that their father is not  coming home tonight, or tomorrow, or ever.

Plot alone doesn’t make a book important, or beautiful, or worth reading. What makes this book significant is its ability to speak with an honesty that transcends the purpose of plot.

Jay’s wife Mary, a religious woman, is encouraged by her brother, aunt, and parents to drink whiskey through the night to settle her shock. She would rather her aunt stay the night with her than her mother due to the ridiculousness of explaining herself to her nearly deaf mother. Mary’s children, Rufus and Catherine, must learn of their father’s death from their hungover mother who is unable to get out of bed to make them breakfast. Rufus is pleased to learn that he is not expected to go to school that day, however staying at home, the stir-crazy children struggle with understanding their father’s demise and quarrel as children do. Rufus is unable to stay at home and finds himself wandering the streets along the way to the school he is not expected to enter. In speaking with his classmates, he feels that his father’s death will give him power over the bullies that have teased him, but his power is deflated as he learns that the parents of the bullies have assumed that his father’s accident was a result of careless drunken driving. All of Mary’s family use religion as a vehicle of expressing hope to one another, but internally they all express their doubts in the goodness or even existence of God or in a possibility of purpose behind the unexpected death of the man they loved.

The novel explores these themes through narrative that flows from each character’s perspective, actions, and thoughts with an attentive purity of voice. The children look up to the adults for guidance and the adults look within themselves for strength. Life isn’t expressed more simply and purposefully than that.

Before the ominous death ever occurred, I was drawn into the book’s introductory pages that describe an outing of the father Jay with his son Rufus. The two go to a Charlie Chaplin silent film and the description of the film’s actions is nearly breathtaking (Agee was a film critic of his time), but what really captivated me was the description of the young son and father sitting outside, away from home after the movie but not quite ready to go home. Jay was simply sitting and taking in the moment of late evening calm, but Rufus looks up to his father, searching for meaning:

“He felt that although his father loved their home and loved all of them, he was more lonely than the contentment of his family could help; that it even increased his loneliness, or made it hard for him not to be lonely. He felt that sitting out here, he was not lonely; or if he was, that he felt on good terms with the loneliness; that he was a homesick man, and that here on the rock, though he might be more homesick than ever, he was well.” (18-19)

Passages such as this are the essence of this book: each of the character looks toward their loved ones with a searching hope for understanding the other, a hope to understand the love that bonds them. The loss of the father impacts them all, but their relationship to one another is what gives them purpose, gives them hope.

It is said that this is a semi-autobiographical book, as Agee’s father had died in a car accident when he was a young boy. Some readers may find that important, but for me this book is simply important because it is a beautiful character study of life, survival, and relationship.

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About hardlyregistered

The meandering observations of a 30 something guy.
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