Don’t Be Afraid
Knopf Canada, 2011
Hardcover, 315 pages
Review by: Kerry Riley
On one level, Steven Hayward’s brilliant second novel, Don’t Be Afraid, is an intimate portrait of a very ordinary family’s struggles to adapt and survive in the aftermath of a tragedy that ripped through their placid lives without warning or explanation, forever dividing existence into the before and after. On another level, it is an examination of a fundamental question of existence: the possibility of life after death. The fact that such disparate forces coexist happily within this funny, warm, wry, sad yet hopeful tale, without tension or excessive gravitas, is a testament to Hayward’s skill and subtlety as a storyteller.
Hayward was born in Toronto and attended both the University of Toronto and York. His book of short stories , Buddha Stevens and Other Stories, was critically well- received. His first novel, The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke, was published as part of Knopf Canada’s New Face of Fiction program which showcases select first-time novelists, and has launched such now-familiar Canadian writers as Ann-Marie MacDonald, Timothy Taylor, Yann Martel, and Mary Lawson, among others. In the Italian translation, The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke won Italy’s Premio Grinzane Cavour Prize, putting Hayward in the company of international writers like Coetzee and Naipaul. He is currently an Assistant Professor (English) at Colorado College, and divides his time between Colorado Springs and Toronto.
The Morrison’s are a typical (with a capital T) 1980’s American family, quietly living their lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, a place the narrator, seventeen-year-old James Fortitude Morrison, sardonically describes as “an ordinary nowhere” with few, if any, distinguishing features. In fact “heights,” as Jim goes on to explain, is overstating the case – there’s really nothing more than a gentle incline. Nothing to make it stand out. Nothing to make it a target.
Jim represents the leading edge of a dynasty of James Fortitude Morrisons, stretching back through the generations, “one James Fortitude Morrison after another, as far back as anyone (…) can remember.” His father is an engineer who specializes in figuring out why “accidents” happen – in fact, he doesn’t believe in the word, and he makes a good living using science to supply his brother-in-law,Uncle Marco, a personal injury lawyer, with the ammunition for lucrative court cases. Up until shortly before the story begins, Jim has shared his uneventful existence with three siblings – his older brother Mike, younger sister Vivian, Petey, the baby of the family, and parents Filomena (an Italian-American ex-nun) and (it goes without saying) father James Fortitude “the Fort” Morrison. Jim, Mike and Vivian divide their time between school, home, and part time jobs at the library, arranged by their librarian mother. This serenity is ripped apart one night when Mike is killed in a mysterious explosion at the library.
The two brothers couldn’t be more different. Jim, the stolid, dependable, nice sibling, adores his older brother but is a little afraid of him too. In the movie they want to make about their lives, it’s clear Jim will have the supporting role, and he doesn’t mind. Mike, on the other hand, is the cool, edgy, leading man brother, pulled towards the dark side, fascinated by the mysteries of the unknown, and the occult. If anyone was going to open a portal that allowed the forces of chaos into the Morrison’s lives, it would be Mike.
The explosion and Mike’s death are revealed by page three, yet these events continue to provide the main narrative propulsion for the story, as Jim chronicles his family’s attempts to cope with the aftermath, and edges warily closer, himself, to an unfiltered examination of the the tragedy, its causes, and its implications. Tension builds for the reader, who is pulled inexorably towards the moment of combustion, and full revelation of the mysterious catastrophe, as Jim, very much aware of the minefield such revelations represent, and the gulf that the disaster opened between his family and the world, cautiously removes protective barriers at his own pace. He is quite right to be careful –his family, it seems, is falling apart – each member exploring the boundaries of sanity in their own idiosyncratic way – and he knows the world will only take so much of this before pulling away, self-protectively. For the reader, the truths that may be revealed about the family’s decline are at least as alarming as the details of the blast itself. The fact that Jim is so likeable only magnifies the tension.
After this introduction, it will take some work to convince readers of this review that Don’t Be Afraid is, besides a compelling mystery, bracing philosophical challenge, and tender examination of grief, bereavement and the far side of catastrophe, also a highly entertaining, at times hilariously, soulfully, funny story. Jim Morrison is a small miracle of characterization – a sensitive, self-deprecating, slightly chubby teenager with the clear-sighted wit of an observational comic, a sure grasp of the value of hope, and a sardonic, but always affectionate voice that slashes through the complications of human behaviour like a machete. One of Hayward’s many particular strengths as a writer is his ability to capture, economically, the essence of a character, through voice and physical description. Consider this observation by Jim, of his father:
…he’s a Fort, which is actually what he looks like, a squarish, military installation constructed out in the middle of nowhere – a squat building you can’t knock over even if you tried (…) The impression you get as you watch him walk is that he’s evolved for the sole purpose of pushing something heavy up a hill.
Those readers who grew up in “nowhere” North America, in the 1970’s and 80’s will appreciate the accuracy with which Hayward recreates the era and the idiom. In the same way that one is deaf to one’s own accent, it’s difficult to recognize that childhood had a particular sound – one that is lost as one move’s farther away from it, in place and time. Until, that is, it is heard again – in this case, in the voice of Jim Morrison, commenting on and describing his world. One instantly recognizes one’s past and realizes that life doesn’t sound like that anymore. Time-anchoring pop cultural references abound – Bob Hope, Family Ties, Sean Penn, Blade Runner and The Big Sleep, and Jim’s namesake, the other Jim Morrison and his iconic band, The Doors, to name a few. Hayward gets considerable comic mileage out of a running reportage of his sister Vivian’s attempts to master the art of early microwave cooking, as she heroically attempts to fill in where her grieving mother has faltered. As Jim tells it,
Then the bell rings and she takes out the chicken. It has turned a pale blue, like a robin’s egg.
‘What’s that smell?’ says Petey, coming into the kitchen.
‘Garlic Chicken Surprise,’ says Vivian.
‘Is it supposed to be blue?’ I ask her.
‘The microwave doesn’t brown meat,’ says Vivian. ‘How many times do we have to go over that?’
She puts the dish in the middle of the table.
Anyone who lived through the introductory days of the microwave has lived that scene, but it takes a writer with a deft touch to turn bluish chicken into a concise statement on the inadequacy of a life anchored only by science, and remind us of the limitless capacity of a mind, bewitched by technology, to deny the obvious.
Jim’s stint as Petey’s “nanny” undertaken during a sort of compassionate leave from school, and in response to his mother’s abdication, gives him lots of opportunity for a wider observation of life. This results in comic riffs on such things as the inscrutibility of the interior life of a toddler, and the high-stakes game of getting a sleeping four-year-old into bed, without waking him. “It’s like defusing a bomb,” Jim notes succinctly. He also provides a perceptive dissection of the undercurrents of yuppie motherhood, as he interacts warily with “the mothers” of Petey’s daycare cohorts. The psychiatry of the support group, and this science’s well-meaning, but essential inadequacy in the face of inexplicable loss and grief gets the Hayward treatment – the scenes between Jim, his therapist, and his support group manage to be funny, darkly disturbing, and vaguely comforting all at the same time.
In a manner reminiscent of Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, Hayward, in a few short introductory pages, embeds the thematic strands that will shape the rest of the story. Jim Morrison is immediately linked to his far more famous counterpart, not just by name, but also because of the fact that he was born three days after the death of the lead singer of The Doors. Three days, (an interval vibrating with a number of resonances) was the length of time it took America to “accept that Jim Morrison had died and wasn’t coming back.” Mention of The Doors’ songs The End and Light My Fire provide sly hints about Mike’s demise and throughout the book, this inescapable connection to “the other Jim Morrison, the one everyone’s heard of” keeps the ideas of death, memory, and memorialization, in play, while references to the singer’s biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, universalizes the problem. These references, along with the saying, “safe from the ravages of time,” a running joke in the Morrison family, which started in reference to the wonders of plastic wrap (but doubles as a reference to the dead) and Filomena’s contention that “heaven is not a newspaper,” neatly encapsulate the larger discussion taking place within this story of one family’s response to tragedy. That, and Ivory Soap.
Scenes depicting the blast which tore apart the library, leaving nothing but a charred scar in the middle of town, have undeniable parallels to 9-11. Once again, the pain of a particular family is universalized, and one sees that an individual and a society can grieve in much the same way
As Jim recounts it,
The library blew up all at once: a flaming geyser shooting up into a dark night. First there was a flash, followed by a blossom of flame, and then everything from inside the library – the tables and the chairs, the microfilm rolls of defunct newspapers, the old 16 mm films, the computers, the green carpet in the children’s section, the cassett tapes and the video cassettes, the Devhan Starway books, the old and the new record albums, the framed pictures of Pete Seeger and John F. Kennedy, the typewriters, the card catalogue, the telephones and paper clips, the due date stamps, the unused blank library cards, the staplers, the staples, the overdue notices in their stamped envelopes – all of it shot up into the night air.
Later, he notes that,
In the days right after the explosion there were pages in eavestroughs, and the upper branches of trees were an eerie white, like they alone were covered in snow. And when it did start to snow, the snow came down black. You’d be walking along and all of a sudden you’d find yourself standing on half a John Donne sonnet, or a recipe for scallops. Or a page offering sound advice about how to balance your chequebook or where to find the best restaurants in Buffalo.
Some behavioural scientists have speculated that the success of our species has depended upon our ability to ignore what we know to be true – that security is an illusion, while pain and death are facts – a situation which no amount of wealth, knowledge, common sense, caution, faith, or insurance can mitigate. If we weren’t in denial, as the thinking goes, we’d all be suicidal. Ivory Soap may be 99.8% pure, but as long as that 0.2% remains, anything can happen. As Jim explains, “no one really knows what that 0.2 percent is, maybe tears, or blood, or some unnameable industrial waste, something radioactive that you wouldn’t give to a rat, but it’s there all the same. It got in.” The ability of unexpected tragedy to refocus our attention on the 0.2%, to pull back the curtain and reveal the monster we are all trying to ignore, is what gives it its power. What to do about the monster is the issue with which Hayward’s characters (and all post-911 North Americans) must grapple.
As noted earlier, the Morrison family existence could not have been more ordinary or safe, yet their tragedy frames the story itself. Jim’s encounters with other members of a support group exposes him (and the reader) to a growing list of experiences — fatal car accidents, inexplicable disappearances, SIDS – that leave no doubt that entropy is, undeniably, active in the world. Reinforcing this uncertainty is Jim’s habit of stopping at various points in his account of the months, weeks, and days before Mike’s death, to measure how much time his brother had left and point out how utterly unaware Mike was of his own looming demise. The reader may be able, initially, to consign the Morrison’s experience to the realm of “things you never think will happen to you,” but Hayward chips away relentlessly at this posture, creating, for Jim and the reader, a sort of existential vertigo.
Enter religion and science (Filomena and Fort, respectively) to examine the question of life after death. This great existential argument is not imposed, but rather, emerges organically from the circumstances of the story. In the early hours after the explosion, there was some initial confusion about whether Mike was actually dead – partly because his whereabouts, at the time, were uncertain, and no one was even sure he was missing, partly because of a temporary triumph of hope over probability, but mostly because Jim’s mother, Filomena, insists she saw her eldest son in the family kitchen, the morning after the tragedy, and before she was aware that he might be dead. The encounter is entirely natural, with no special numinosity. Until, that is, a charred body part found at the site is identified as Mike’s. He had, therefore, been dead hours before the visitation. Filomena, however, refuses to recant, insisting that she saw her son, in the flesh. The reader’s relationship to the story, from this point on, will depend on what they want or need to be true.
Readers of a Dawkinsian persuasion, who find an irrational universe the most terrifying option, will sympathize with Fort, the man of science, who doesn’t believe in accidents or fate (only insufficient preparation or negligence) and for whom a mystery is just a causal sequence yet to be unravelled. Although he loves his wife, he would rather believe that her grief caused a cognitive malfunction, or that she is deliberately lying to protect Mike’s memory from blame regarding the explosion, than to entertain the possibility of life after death. These readers will also feel smug vindication, as they watch human nature toy with supernatural explanations for mysterious goings-on at the library prior to the blast, events that only they (and Jim) know are entirely man-made. They will understand and applaud Fort’s efforts to get to the bottom of things, although they may, ultimately, be rattled by some of his own irrational behaviour, and the fact that his science proves inadequate, yielding only probable causes, and no comfort. They may or may not appreciate the irony of the fact that, in the end, the investigators deem the explosion an “act of God.” Furthermore, Fort’s efforts make it painfully clear that how and why are not the same question.
Filomena, formerly Sister Mary Damian of the Infant Jesus, who once maintained a vow of silence for two years, is clearly no spiritual featherweight. Readers will come to love her for her easy going humour, sunny disposition and steadfast, tolerant resistance to her husband’s world view. She believes, without question, that her dead son visited her, and, in fact, has continued to do so, from time to time, since the explosion. When she declares that “Heaven is not a newspaper,” (i.e payment of spiritual dues is no guarantee that certainty will be delivered to your doorstep, and conversely, the lack of hard evidence in no way impacts on the possibility of a truth beyond our understanding) she is launching a spirited rallying cry for all those exasperated by the myopia of science. Readers who find a mechanistic universe the more terrifying option, will applaud her superior sensitivity and openness to possibility. However, her religion, which one might assume would be her strength, proves as much an impediment as science was for Fort, and as her behaviour devolves alarmingly, and the demarcation between sensitivity and derangement becomes less clear, she proves a worrisome ally. The dilemma for the reader is expressed, powerfully, in the image of Jim, seated on a bench, staring at the pit that once was the library, the domains of the living and the dead sharply demarcated by a chain link safety fence, alternately holding a camera (in case some revelatory piece of evidence should present itself) or a rosary.
Hayward, wisely, provides no obvious answers, although there are hints, besides the title, as to his own predilections. The answer, he seems to be saying, may lie in the noticing.