A dysfunctional Louisiana family spins out of control in this novel by Dasgupta (The Sea Singer, 2016, etc.).
Barn is a 7-year-old boy who wishes that he had the power of flight. At the beginning of the story, he climbs up on the roof of the family home in rural Louisiana, having glued feathers to his skin. It’s easy to understand why he wants to fly away; his father, referred to as Uncle Gerald, is a ne’er-do-well who’s wanted for all manner of criminal offences. Barn’s cousin Mutty, the novel’s first-person narrator, soon convinces Barn that he actually can’t fly. Mutty lives with his mother and Barn in a boarded-up farmhouse. He also has a fascination with Pepper, a mysterious, vociferous young woman who shows up at the farm on a regular basis. Pepper and Mutty aren’t friends, but they often have uninhibited, rough sex. After Uncle Gerald is arrested, Barn starts refusing to talk, and soon the family’s world descends into turmoil. Another character, referred to as The Dirty Man, shows up in town—a chilling figure from Pepper’s sordid past. Mutty’s estranged father, Pierre, reveals that The Dirty Man, otherwise known as Brody, bought Pepper from another man named Mallow, and he now owns “her skin and everything in between.” The Dirty Man is intent on taking her away, but she’s a fighter (and a biter). She’s also growing emotionally closer to Mutty, who will do anything to protect those close to him.
This is a deeply idiosyncratic novel with a wildly unique descriptive style. The opening reads like a book for early readers: “Cow, cow, cow, went the moo, and cat, cat, cat went the meow, and dog, dog, dog, went the bark.” This approach continues throughout, although it becomes rather more adult in tone after Mutty and Pepper’s visit to a sex toy shop: “Leather, leather, leather went the thong. Zzzz, zzzz, zzzz went the vibrate.” Mutty is a desperately unreliable narrator who offers a deliciously distorted reading of events. At one point he remarks, “The man walked up to us. Pepper’s nails were deep into my skin.” This is repeated as “Pepper walked up to us. The man’s nails were deep into my skin.” And then, “My skin walked up to us, and Pepper’s nails were deep into the man’s skin.” It’s akin to experimental poetry, and readers are regularly left piecing together fragments while searching for meaning. It takes some work on the reader’s part, but it’s well worth the effort. Dasgupta is an ingenious writer with a painterly eye for detail, as when Mutty confides: “all I could do was sit and watch Barn play under the pepper sprinkled sun.” He also has an equal power to disturb—as when Mutty buys strawberry-flavored edible underwear at a store as a snack for Barn to eat. This is courageously strange writing that will intrigue and beguile the reader from the get-go, and it boasts a denouement that would make Quentin Tarantino squirm.
Unsettling, endearing, and brilliant.