by Tiffany McDaniel
eARC, 320 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 2016
Read: July 18 – 19, 2016
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
Yeah, Keyser Söze’s paraphrase of C. S. Lewis’ appropriation of Charles Baudelaire isn’t part of this book, but it might just encapsulate it. Maybe.
It’s the summer of 1984 in Breathed, OH, and it’s hot. Really hot — and about to get a lot hotter. 1984 is a big year — HIV is identified as the virus that leads to AIDS, Apple releases the Macintosh, Michael Jackson’s Pepsi commercial shoot, and the following advertisement runs in the local newspaper, The Breathian:
Dear Mr. Devil, Sir Satan, Lord Lucifer, and all other crosses you bear,
I cordially invite you to Breathed, Ohio. Land of hills and hay bales, of sinners and forgivers.
May you come in peace.
With great faith,
Autopsy Bliss is the local prosecutor, who wants to see for himself what evil looks like. Hence the advertisement.
So who shows up in response? A bruised, short black boy dressed in tattered and torn overalls who simply seems to want some ice cream and to say hi to the man who invited him. Autopsy’s son, Fielding, is the first one in town to meet the boy and takes him home to his father (sadly, no ice cream is available in town — unbelievably — for the remainder of the Summer). The Bliss family ends up taking the lad in, and starts calling him Sal. He and Fielding become fast friends and are almost inseparable for the rest of the summer. One by one, almost everyone in this sleepy community is touched by the appearance of Sal — either first-hand or by proxy — demons (figurative), troubled family and personal histories are exposed, latent corruptions come to light, and accidents strike many. No one in Breathed will be the same after the day Sal first appears to Fielding.
The book is narrated by Fielding about 70 years after that summer looking back on the time, thinking of all the regrets he’s had since then and all the ways his time with Sal has overshadowed the ensuing decades. It honestly reminded me of A Prayer for Owen Meany because of this — little kid who talks oddly, is smarter than any of his (apparent) peers, and divides a community, while leaving an indelible mark on his closest friend (who’s not always a friend).
Almost every name (maybe every name, and I’m not clever enough to get it all) is rich in meaning and symbolism — there’s symbolism all over the place, but McDaniel gets her money’s worth with the names in particular. This book will reward close readings, and probably repeated readings as well.
There are so many depictions and descriptions of child abuse and spousal abuse that it’s almost impossible to believe that there households in that world where someone isn’t getting hit on a pretty regular basis. Thankfully, we’re spared watching characters going through it (the vast majority of the time), but there are many mentions of it.
This is not fun read, really, but I loved the whole experience, it is a rewarding read. McDaniel writes with such richness, such depth, there are phrases throughout this that will knock you out. There’s one sentence that I went back to at least a half-a-dozen times one evening — not because I needed to try to suss it out, but because I just liked it so much. The variety of ways she can describe the horrible and debilitating heat wave that struck that part of Ohio those months is pretty astounding — I’m just glad I had some sort of air conditioning most of the time I spent reading the book. Sal’s descriptions of Hell and his fellow prisoners there are full of haunting images that will stick with me for a while (some good haunting, some less-so). I’m troubled by some of what this book said about God, but since the Devil is the one who told about God, I’m not sure we’re supposed to trust his characterizations. On the other hand, just about everything that the book says about the devil seems to be spot-on.
There are no easy answers to be found here — is Sal the devil? Is someone else in town? Is there a devil at all? Are the naturalistic explanations offered here and there throughout enough? I just don’t think you can think about this book without dealing with the Baudelaire/Lewis/Söze thought.
Can’t help but wonder how things would’ve gone if he’d just gotten a little ice cream.
Disclaimer:I received this eARC via NetGalley at the author’s invitation in return for this post. My thanks to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and Tiffany McDaniel for this.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.