Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Death in the Family by James Agee

"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 it in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice.  You've got to keep your mind off pitying your own rotten luck and setting up any kind of 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 that you will too.  You'll bear it because it isn't any choice--except to go to pieces."

Jay Follet is headed home to his wife and kids in the early hours outside Knoxville, Tennessee, when a pin comes lose from the steering mechanism of his car, he crashes, and dies.  A Death in the Family is the story of the days just before and after this accident, and follows the reactions of Jay's wife and his young son.  The story is autobiographical: it happened to Agee's father when he, like the boy Rufus, was only six years old.

That kind of firsthand experience brings, obviously, a subtlety of feeling and observance that only the most imaginative could supply secondhand.  But I wonder if it doesn't make Agee too close to the central moment of the story, too willing to imbue it with mythopoetic meaning about the nature of God and existence.  Agee goes on long discursive jags of free association that get mired in high-flown but disorganized prose.  Does it help explain the inscrutability of death to you if we call it "that inconceivable chasm of invulnerable silence in which cataclysms of galaxies rave mute as amber?"  Even good observations, such as, "Where 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," pale when you realize that Emily Dickinson has already said them more pithily: "After pain a formal feeling comes..."  Agee considers but can't really effectively communicate Auden's observation that suffering "takes place / When someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along."

The mix of overwriting and sincerity is deadly.  What A Death in the Family reminded me of the most was the tediousness of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, AngelThe sections with Jay's widow are the worst: her husband's death poses a serious crisis of faith which is somehow resolved in a matter of days.  Much better are the sections that see the death through the eyes of the boy Rufus, trying to understand death through the limited viewpoint of a child.  Agee gives Rufus a much younger sister, even less prepared to understand death than her brother, and perceives the subtle differences between the mind of a four year-old and a six year-old.  And these sections provide some much-needed levity and irony, as when Rufus and Catherine try to understand the man in black--the priest--who seems to be causing their mother so much grief, but for which she seems to be grateful.  Or Rufus' confusion as to the cause of death--was it God, or a concussion?  And how can it be both?  A novel entirely like this, in the mode of What Maisie Knew or other books narrated from a child's perspective, might have worked much better.

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