In this alternately prolix and poignant debut, a young gay man, long estranged from his parents, heads south to retrieve his ailing mother after the suicide of his father.
Library archivist Avery Cullins is summoned from Cleveland to Tallahassee, where his father, a retired nuclear physicist, has suffocated himself but not gone through with his plan to shoot his dementia-suffering and utterly dependent wife beforehand: “Couldn’t do it,” reads his laconic note. Avery and his partner, Freddie, fly down to sort through the detritus of years, cull it, load it into a U-Haul, and bring it—and Avery’s mother—back north. Wicks intercuts scenes from the fraught and cramped road trip, which exposes or widens all the fault lines in Avery’s relationship with Freddie, with much longer sections in which Avery as narrator imaginatively reconstructs moments from his childhood and its complicated prehistory: the early years of his parents’ tense, often hostile marriage; the birth and then death from leukemia of an elder brother; a second pregnancy born of deceit; the awkwardness of Avery’s emerging sexual identity in small-town Dixie. The setting, the area around the Savannah River Nuclear Reservation in western South Carolina in the waxing and later waning days of the Cold War, is well-evoked, and Avery paints a persuasive portrait of his warring but unsplittable (the metaphor of the nuclear family is always present here) parents. Avery invents or extrapolates these stories partly out of guilt (they’re laments of connections either lost or never rightly forged), partly out of anger…and always with a pained sense of his mother’s simultaneous physical presence (on the bench seat of the U-Haul; in various harrowing scenes of incontinence) and psychological absence (she can’t even recognize him).
Wicks’ stylistic reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, but overall this is a promising first novel about family, domesticity, and the ties that bind, whether we want them to or not.