Friday, July 4, 2014
Book Review: Deep Ellum
4 Stars - Strongly Recommended to those who believe you can never go home again but say fuck it and do it anyway
Publisher: Calamari Press
Released: March 2014
No one comes from a perfect family, no matter what those cheesy 80's tv sitcoms would have you believe. The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Growing Pains, Family Matters - pah-lease. Whose family actually sits around the kitchen table bemoaning what's fair and what's not? Who has parents that are skilled in not only talking you out of doing something stupid, but could do so in a way that utterly convinced you, all nice and clean-like, without any yelling or cursing or throwing of things or verbal humiliation, like those god-awful shows managed, in a swift half-hour segment?
We are not the results of a happy, healthy, normal household. We are children of divorce or mentally and physically abusive parents. We are the unappreciated, unwanted offspring of dope-heads and meth-heads and alcoholics. We raised ourselves while our depressed, unemployed or underpaid, unhappy mothers and fathers struggled to make ends meet, children of parents who constantly reminded us of the hardship our needs and wants had placed upon them.
We got ourselves off to school every morning and relied on our older siblings to make sure we had some food in our stomachs and scrubbed under our armpits and behind our ears. We hung out with friends until late at night, hoping to sneak in unnoticed as our parents lie there on the couch, passed out in front of the television. We were one teeny tiny misstep away from becoming one of the wild, caged animals you see in the zoo, pacing back and forth across our small, familiar bit of land, puffing out our chests and snarling and snapping if strangers circled too close.
Brandon Hobson's Deep Ellum is very much a sentimental look back at that broken childhood, at family relationships gone bad (and getting worse), at why they say "you can't go home again", and rightly, who the fuck wants to? It also details, more specifically, a reluctant last-gasp attempt to pull the pieces back together when three siblings are called back home after their mother's most recent failed suicide.
Gideon, our narrator and middle child, leaves his Chicago life behind and crashes at his older sister Meg's apartment to be closer to his mother and step-father in their time of need. Though he finds, within the very first day, that this is going to require a heck of a lot more energy than he is willing to expend. Meg, for her part, appears to do everything she can to avoid being around, preferring to lose herself in whatever dark and drug-induced corners of Dallas she can tuck herself into while Basille, the youngest and most conscientious of the threesome (though that's not saying a whole lot), is relied on for the day-to-day hang outs at the parents' place. Family obligation, freedom, and the fucking aggravation that goes along with all of it, right? Someone always gets to disappear while the other(s) are left, grudgingly, to pick up the slack.
Hobson is at his best when creating wholly uncomfortable familial situations - the Flowers-in-the-Attic wrongness to Meg and Gideon's relationship, the unspoken mounting tension between Gideon and his step-father, the increasing drug abuse of all three siblings, and the overall disinterest they show towards their mother and her current state of mind. What's the saying? The family that incessantly picks at each other's wounds stays together? Hobson is also a master at word economy, expressing only what's necessary and trusting, or simply allowing, his readers to infer the rest. He isn't afraid to hold a mirror up to all the ugly shit families are famous for pulling on each other, either. Whether you've lived a similarly messed up life or not, you certainly know someone who has, or can relate to some of the circumstances here.
Deep Ellum is one of those books you happily, unexpectedly, fall into. I'd been meaning to read it for awhile now, ever since the publisher sent along the digital file, quite a way's back. And for some reason it just kept getting pushed farther and farther down the review pile. Until, two days ago, when I was caught out and about without my current (paper) read, and pulled this up on my phone. Within minutes, Hobson's writing sucked me in and refused to spit me out until I'd read every last word. And as I read, every so often, I bent over and kicked myself in the ass, wondering what the hell took me so long to get started on it. But then again, I always feel the right books come to you at just the right times. I think Deep Ellum knew it was time. And I'm glad that I listened.
Dysfunctional families for the win!