PROS: Makes the familiar strange and the strange inseparable from the familiar; weaves multiple perspectives and narratives together powerfully with wonderful variations of texture and access to characters; full of insights great and small about the human condition.
CONS: Slow start; occasional fumbles in the narrative.
BOTTOM LINE: Pushes genre AND literary conventions aside and digs deeply into the wonderful and petty compulsions and practices that make us human.
“The Fort Jude way is a little miracle of denial.”
I am a great admirer of Kit Reed’s short fiction, and I was eager to dig into her latest novel Son of Destruction. As I began to read, however, I became a little discouraged; the opening was slower and less pointed than I had come to expect from her, and its framing of what was to come felt a little banal. What I realized as I got deeper into the novel was that this was a subtler start than I usually find in her short fiction because it sets the reader up for the textual jabs and haymakers that would soon rain down, sometimes unpredictably, on the imagination. If that seems an odd characterization, it is because Son of Destruction is more complicated, knowing, and sometimes weird because of that mixture. What Reed produces is in the novel is simultaneously a tangle of human lives and a desperate orchestration of those lives as individuals struggle with loneliness, disappointment, and the ongoing costs of keeping secrets both terrible and trivial to maintain a veneer of neighborliness and belonging.
Reed composes a story that is on the surface a mystery: young Dan Carteret decides to find his unknown father after the death of his mother, Lucy, an act that she forbade him to perform when she was alive. As a journalist Dan travels to Fort Jude, Florida, to investigate a series of spontaneous combustions and to track down his absent father at the same time. What he finds is a small town of people unwilling to take a hard look at their lives as they struggle to deal with the disappointments and vicissitudes of their choices for living those lives. As he searches for his father he becomes entangled in the social web of Fort Jude and touches something deeper than gossip or self-presentations; he finds, literally, ghosts, and other things that both push him towards answers and complicate his search.
The heart of the story is Dan’s attempt to make sense of one particular case of spontaneous combustion, which Reed describes wonderfully:
“For a few seconds there, oh, lady! She must have been glorious: lit up from within, glowing like a Japanese lantern in her purple silk nightie, which is what the coroner said she was wearing when the flames consumed her. Then the fire blossomed. She split and it came gushing out. Imagine light blooming in her belly, exploding in twin gouts rushing from the holes where her eyes had been, flame shooting out of her belly and her open mouth in a celebration of light. “
This is a metaphor of sorts for what happens in the novel overall, as people are forced to reveal and ponder what lies within them, particularly the things that could destroy them. Reed composes the story from the perspectives of several characters (dead and alive), using both first and third person points of view. Sometimes these viewpoints meander, but overall their juxtapositions create not only a compelling story, but some profound, sometimes disturbing, portraits of people caught in their own denials and shortcomings. What Reed gives us through the array of perspectives is, in fragments and sudden revelations, the story of how human beings scramble to make their lives what they want them to be despite what they have seen and done (or failed to do). Reed is merciless towards her characters in what she reveals about them, but that is the fuel that feeds the story. The mystery is not what these people hide, but what they produce by hiding it, why they cling to self-conceptions that diminish them and how they blind themselves to truth. Lorna Archambault’s fiery demise draws us into the story, and in surprising ways illuminates it too, even as it brings it to an ending that, while a bit predictable, does not answer all the questions the novel brings up.
All of these lives, their uncertainty, their fears, their lost moments of opportunity, are fragile and tinder-dry, and everyone is fighting off the sparks that might ignite and consume them. Son of Destruction works best when it shows us how desperately the characters try to keep passions at bay by denying their own nature and the actions of others around them. As Dan asks uncomfortable questions, we see people frightened of their pasts try to not conceal it, but normalize it, make it palatable. As Dan tries to put together the story of what happened to his mother, of the events that made her who she was and led to his own birth, he forces the residents of Fort Jude to look at the fabric of community they have woven together and their own patchwork contributions to it, and see what it tries to cover up. There is a hardscrabble anthropology at work here, of people using ritual, social status, and cultural assumptions to set out of sight what does not fit into the world they urgently wish they had.
Reed’s ability to condense so much,visually and emotionally, into a single sentence or phrase illustrates the characters’ struggles and their context with both concision and evocation. The fantastical elements are subdued and designed to give us windows into some of the characters” minds, but they also serve as ways of understanding the ineffable, of codifying emotions and longings and needs. Reed uses her ability to integrate the weird and the fantastic into stories not to make them more exciting or diverting, but to add to the characters’ travails and show us more of their foibles and, sometimes, strengths. This polyvocal, cascading narrative will not be for everyone, and the story is not an elaborate one, but Son of Destruction is a novel well worth reading, and re-reading (I read it twice before I started writing this review). Reed pulls us, like moths to a flame, to these lives and what they have built and holds up a pieced-together mirror to them, one that refracts their light to allows us to look deeply into them and, possibly, see flashes of ourselves and our own world too.