Kenney’s debut novel offers a coming-of-age story about a doleful soul and the family ghosts that haunt “the entire stir-fry of existence.”
Steeped in television, snack foods and denial, the Brennan family has achieved the “pinnacle of post-war American triumph: the total evacuation of suffering.” But the youngest son, Jimmy, has an “erotic affair with the morbid,” with illness, disasters and death. “His is not a Greek tragedy,” says the narrator. “It was born in the U.S.A.” In rural Indiana, suburban Ohio and Connecticut, and on the transcendent South Carolina coast, melancholy Jimmy pines for a spiritual awakening. He steals money from his moody father, who is known in the family as "the enforcer." Most disturbingly, Jimmy fantasizes about attacking his mother with a hammer and daydreams at length about TV lawyer Perry Mason prosecuting him for matricide. Author Kenney uses shifting perspectives throughout the novel, including a chapter from the point of view of a long-gone mother. At various points, the narrative shifts to Jimmy's first person perspective; and, when his older brother Frank battles terminal cancer, Jimmy narrates the story in an elegiac tone. Although often nostalgic, the book never romanticizes the morbidity on its pages. Its short sentences and subtle repetition build into crescendos of poetry and flourishes of magical realism. Despite these powerful effects, readers may find themselves, like some of the book’s main characters, shutting down after visiting so many deathbeds. That said, Jimmy’s story ends on a hopeful note as he seeks solace in meditation to establish “contact with that nameless radiance at the heart of every instant.”
A beautifully written, slow-paced reflection on a 20th-century family.