Bryan Furuness’s first novel, just out from Black Lawrence Press, takes on taboo territory – both the taboos of polite society (parental separation, suicide, rape, incest, abortion), and the taboos of impolite contemporary fiction (namely, Jesus). By which I mean Jesus as a good guy, Jesus as possibly ourlordandsavior. The volatile tension that results when you mix the unspeakable with the overspoken complicates what could otherwise be a well-written but conventional coming-of-age novel. Its subtle moralizing threatens didacticism but is consistently surprising and complex enough that it will at least goad readers into remembering how daunting it was as child to observe so much of the adult world invested in the Bible – a kid’s story of good and evil, impetuous gods and walking dead.
I was first introduced to Furuness – and to Revie Bryson – in a story called “Ballgrabber” that appeared in Hobart 9. Revie surveyed the world of kids in such an irreverent, fresh, hilarious way that I filed Furuness’s name away and vowed to read his first novel whenever it came out. I read Lost Episodes in three days, and that same irreverent freshness was there to remind me why I’d been anxiously awaiting its release.
The book opens with Revie believing that, on his twelfth birthday, God will reveal that he is, in fact, the second coming of Christ. As Revie begs his father to take off work and be there for the big event, Furuness riffs on a quote from the Gospels that lingers somewhere in many of our minds: “I needed him there when the big voice came from the sky, declaring me His son, with whom he is really excited to be working” (24). Revie’s mother, whose Hollywood dreams were dashed by early motherhood, departs early in the novel for a last-ditch pilgrimage to La-La Land, leaving Revie and his father back in Indiana, feeling – I love this – “awful and tender” (107). The family’s brokenness brings out the worst in everyone: Mom’s pathetic optimism, Dad’s inability to handle the most meager domestic duties, and Revie’s devastating speculations, such as: “Our family was the toxin my parents were trying to flush from their systems” (130).
As with any novel that takes risks, this book is vulnerable to some heavy questions. Why do our estranged parents finally have makeup sex right after discussing their son’s sexual activity? Are they getting off on it? Why do Revie’s clothes need to come off as a peripheral character steps up to deliver the novel’s main moral crux? Part of me wants to tap the side of my nose and suggest we should give kid nudity and catechism class a bit of distance, but a greater part of me applauds this book’s exploration of daunting life circumstances we normally hide behind euphemisms like “messy terrain.” I’d rather a novel raise problematic questions than just answer comfortable ones.
I think of the last scene in Louis Malle’s film Murmur of the Heart, a coming-of-age story that likewise refuses to pretend kids don’t sometimes have sex… with mom. The family is broken by infatuation, indifference, and negligence – but at the end of the film, none of them can stop laughing as they share yet another family dinner. While the end of Lost Episodes leaves the Bryson family relatively at peace, the peace is more akin to exhaustion than tidy resolution. In Midwestern fashion, they shrug and shush away past horrors so that living can continue. Sometimes problems don’t get fixed; we just get used to them.
In the book’s final chapter, Revie brings the reader up-to-speed, and we realize that the form of the book is a young man (28, I think) writing about these events earlier in his life. I would have preferred a hint of this frame story at the beginning of the book, as it didn’t seem satisfyingly surprising and it would have helped me filter the voice throughout. For example, Revie’s contemplation of suicide seems to come a little bit out of nowhere – he’s been through some tough stuff, but I realize in retrospect that Revie’s gloom probably never struck me as suicidal because it was narrated by a survivor rather than a current sufferer. (Looking back now at the novel’s first paragraph, I see that there are at least hints that we’re dealing with an adult narrator looking back on his childhood; my having “forgotten” this framing could speak to the novel’s convincing adolescent voice…)
I described the book to a friend of mine who teaches children’s literature, and she asked if it could be considered a YA novel. The question took me by surprise and immediately made me recall a line from Lost Episodes when Revie and his dad travel to Florida to look for Revie’s mother and have to court the favor of her fortune-telling mother, Madame. Madame motions to the books that line every wall of the room, at first classifying them by section: science fiction, philosophy, religion, the occult. Laughing away the joke Revie didn’t get, she elaborates, “Any of these books could fit into any of those categories. What you call them says more about you than it says about the book” (74). So I can say that, yes, it’s appropriate for readers who enjoy YA, while it shakes off many of the conventions that attract and repel readers from that genre in droves. Yes, it’s a coming-of-age story, but just as much for the thirty-year-old adults in the story as their twelve-year-old son. Yes, it’s a book with religious references and moral implications – but what does it say about me that these characteristics stand out as unique? This is a book that reads you. You’re ignoring what formed you, it seems to chide.
Joe Sacksteder teaches creative writing at Eastern Michigan University. He begs you to check out his Werner Herzog sound poems on Sleeping Fish and textsound. Other publications include Booth, Fourteen Hills, Hawaii Review, and Rio Grande Review.