In Hornbuckle’s (The Salvation of Billy Wayne Carter, 2010, etc.) latest novel, two brothers become inexplicably fused together.
Fifteen-year-old Robert and 13-year-old Wally Mackintosh are brothers who live on their parents’ farm in Alabama near the Mississippi line. One afternoon in early June 1959, the two boys head to a pond, not far from the farmhouse, to cool off after a hot morning. Soon after diving into the pool, the two boys smell an unusual, sulfurous odor, then hear a whistling sound coming from above. Wally clutches Robert in fear, and Robert swims frantically to the pool’s edge with his brother on his back. A fireball falls out of the sky and splashes down in the opposite end of the pond. The water heats up “faster than when a kettle is poured into the bath,” and the boys, after dragging themselves out, discover that they have become physically connected: “Wally’s left hand, forearm, and shoulder were stuck to Robert in an embrace from behind.” An examination by Dr. Stanhope, the local physician, suggests that they won’t be able to be separated easily, and this is confirmed at the hospital after X-rays show that the fusion is “more than just skin deep” and features abnormalities that doctors can’t explain. Military personnel arrive and begin conducting tests, and newspaper reporter Munford Coldwater takes a personal interest in the family. Meanwhile, the boys must come to terms with their new lives while searching for a way to break free.
Near the opening of this novel, Hornbuckle embeds the story in a specific time in American history, referring to 1959’s Communist paranoia, Elvis-mania, and the progress of the civil rights movement in a laconic line: “it had been a summer of reds and a summer of blues and a summer of blacks.” This phrase also subtly and powerfully hints at the opposing forces that shape the novel’s overarching narrative—a fear of otherness and a love of music. Unable to engage in farm work, Wally, a keen fiddle player, teaches his nonmusical brother to play, and the family takes to the road as mendicant musicians. Hornbuckle’s description of the learning process is both tender and unsettling: “[Robert] could feel the hand on his chest, Wally’s fingering hand, itching to form into the correct positions, unable to curve…he could even sense which finger Wally wanted to use on the fingerboard, and this helped him sometimes find the spot.” Indeed, he’s an alarmingly talented writer who’s able to vividly communicate the wide spectrum of sensations and emotions—from intimacy to awkwardness to sheer frustration—that spring from the boys’ situation. He also seemingly effortlessly captures the atmosphere, pace, and cuisine of the American South and shows an acute understanding of the political mood, resulting in an engrossing novel. Readers who prefer stories that tie up every loose end in the denouement will be left wanting more—but otherwise, they’ll find this one to be a rare and peculiar gem.
An impressively written tale that’s layered with intrigue.