As the family car inches toward far-off Michigan, two children labor to make sense of their infant brother’s death back in Texas.
Once the baby, dead of an illness that brought high fever and indelible memories, was embalmed and placed inside a toy box in the trunk, the family packed their remaining belongings and headed for their grandfather’s house half a continent away. The situation smacks of an updated As I Lay Dying, and first-novelist Kimball pumps up the parallel by presenting the journey entirely through the alternating narratives of the family’s two surviving children, both of whom, like Vardaman Bundren in Faulkner’s novel, are obsessed with the problem of understanding death. The boy copes with the traumas of death and uprooting by tabulating the household goods the family barters to get from one forgettable little town to the next (“We traded my brother’s life away to that other family when we traded my brother’s cradle and other baby stuff away to them”). His younger sister, struggling to recast her doll family as her shattered real family, finds her dead brother wherever she looks (“You can’t stop dead people from going away to somewhere dead inside you”). The melding of the two childishly matter-of-fact voices produces some rude poetry (“America gets emptier the farther away you go up into it,” avers the brother), but the effect of such relentless literal-mindedness, at first powerful, eventually becomes grueling and finally tedious, like a long car trip with your own parents, even if your dead brother isn’t in the trunk.
Long before the end, you appreciate why Faulkner surrounded his own child narrator with adults whose take on their journey, if no more perceptive, was inarticulate in refreshingly different ways.