1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
"...and fill you with wonder.",
This review is from: A Death in the Family (Paperback)
My older Avon edition, with the far more appropriate cover of the empty easy chair, had only one "blurb" on the back, from the now defunct "Saturday Review," which stopped publication in 1986. It said: "There's nothing quite like the excitement of coming upon a book and suddenly having it explode at you and fill you with wonder. Such a book is `A Death in the Family'." The quintessential blurb. I've remembered it for the 43 years since my first reading, and upon the second reading, find it equally appropriate and descriptive.
James Agee starts the book with an equally memorable sentence, as well as introductory passage: "We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child." From the title to the section, you know that the year is 1915, a date that can evoke nostalgia. The men, and yes it was mainly men, came home from work, ate dinner at 6:00 pm, and with no TV, at 6:30 would go outside to water the lawn, and the evenings were enjoyed on the front porch. Agee has a brilliantly precise depiction of the ritual of watering the lawn, from the noise in the hose, to the bell-shaped film of water that the spray can assume. I've rarely been able to use a hose since without recalling this descriptive passage.
The novel spans the two or three days which surround the death of Jay Follet in a car accident, and the subsequent impact his death had on his wife, their two small children, as well as the rest of the family. Yes, it was a simpler time, with cars in their infancy, and we learn that it was one cotter pin that fell out of the steering mechanism which resulted in the crash.
Much of the book is told from the point of view of the Follet's son, Rufus. Rarely does an adult writer have the ability to tell a story through the eyes of a child without mudding the waters with adult sensibilities and knowledge. In Agee's case though, I thought he hit ever note true. It certainly brought back a flood of memories from my own childhood, and how I had rarely thought about certain aspects since. The scene in which the older children make a performance out of making fun of 5-year old Rufus, who is only seeking their recognition and approval, is heart-breaking. Ah, the cruelty of children.
There were numerous other vignettes of equal intensity and insight, and these included a depiction of the alcoholism of Jay's younger brother Ralph; the conflicts in the marriage of Jay and Mary over alcohol and religion; a shopping trip with an aunt, with the importance of making your own style selections; the heartache of extreme age over 100; and a description of the night, from a child's bedroom. Agee's writing evokes deep emotion, again and again.
Many of us have, or may have to explain what death is to a young child. Forget all the "How to..." books on this one. Agee has written the sine qua non account. Agee also had a dim view of the "men of the cloth," and wrote a scathing portrait of the obtuse, pompous Father Jackson, who alienated both Rufus, and his sister Catherine, with numerous faux pas. Again, how much was projection of adult sentiments onto children? On the first reading, I obviously did not know, but on the second, something similar happened to my own children, when they were 6 and 7. They saw through the bad attitude of the "preacher man," and said they never wanted to go back; and they haven't. But it is Mary's brother, Andrew who delivers the most scathing critique, because Father Jackson would not perform all the rites since Jay had never been baptized: "Genuflecting, and ducking and bowing and scraping, and basting themselves with signs of the Cross, and all that disgusting hocus-pocus, and you come to one simple, single act of Christian charity and what happens? The rules of the Church forbid it. He is not a member of our little club. I tell you, Rufus, its enough to make a man puke up his soul."
42 years ago I recommended this book to a well-read friend and mentor from East Tennessee, and he came back with the verdict that this was just a "simple story, OK, but of not much significance." It has bothered me, in a low key way, lo' these many years. Was I originally right, or was his assessment correct? Surely I was right the first time... and the second reading has only confirmed, and even strengthened that assessment. I consider it one of the top 10 American novels ever written. A 6-star read.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on February 10, 2010)