Rights and Wrongs: A book review of A Body’s Just as Dead, a novel by Cathy Adams
At the current dismal juncture of US social and political history, it is dismaying to witness the ignorance and prejudice, the violence and demagoguery, the greed and stupidity worn as a badge of honour by so many politicians and their supporters. Whence comes their rejection of truth, science and rationality? Why such disdain for intelligence, compassion and empathy? Why the obsession with guns?
Wisely, Cathy Adams’ admirable novel A Body’s Just as Dead chooses not to tackle these issues head-on; instead, it addresses the social and economic contexts in which they flourish. Set in Drayton, Alabama, the novel follows the many troubled members of the Hemper-Boyd family as they struggle to stay afloat in a sea of debt, joblessness, criminality and recurrent tragedy. Yet this is by no means a depressing story. It is frequently very funny indeed and often moving. Adams’ deft handling of comedy and pathos is interleaved with significant little details and interludes of interiority that invite us to revise our opinions of individuals whose histories she discloses. This is a difficult and beautiful achievement for any writer.
As so often in real life, claims to rights in A Body’s Just as Dead – particularly misinterpreted Second Amendment rights – go hand in hand with the denial of rights to others, dishonesty and phony patriotism:
Pete-O had told a few people he had lost his legs in the Gulf War, and besides that, he always wore a ‘God Bless America’ cap with a flag pin stuck in the side. Nobody was going to tell a man who’d had his legs blown off in Afghanistan that he couldn’t bring his dog with him into Waffle House or Kroger’s.
Pete-O actually lost his legs to diabetes. He and many millions of his compatriots have genuinely been betrayed and marginalized by political and economic elites, but they have been persuaded that the fault lies with immigrants and others intent on depriving them of their rights (there are only so many rights to go around):
We still live in a free country, or at least we’re supposed to. But all people like you can do is to take our rights away one by one that men fought and died for, and you think we’ll just sit back and take it.
In the United States a great deal of rights talk is wedded to the love of readily available firearms. ‘Pete-O bought a double-action autoloader, and [nephew] Jack was so enamoured he could hardly take his eyes off it.’ At the firing range, Pete-O regularly proclaims:
‘Here’s yours, you son of a bitch,’ right before he squeezed off a few rounds. One day Jack asked him who he was talking about, and he said, ‘Jack, there’s a new one every week.’
This week’s ‘son of a bitch’ turns out to be a harmless store manager:
Pete-O cocked his pistol. ‘Here’s yours, you son of a bitch,’ and fired …
He was smiling the way he did at the shooting range, like he was in charge of everything and somebody was going to get his.
Guns intervene at critical moments throughout A Body’s Just as Dead, whether in the hands of a child who thinks it’s a toy – ‘Grinning, Rob Jr. held his grandmother’s Smith and Wesson in both hands, pointing it up at his mother’ – or by the red-haired young man who insists on bringing his AK-15 with him to the Tomahawk Diner. That one’s grandmother owned a Smith and Wesson, or that ‘AK-15’ requires no explanation, is astonishing enough for non-Americans, but then we learn this:
Kelley and supporters were recently seen carrying guns on the sidewalk in front of the Glencoe McDonald’s. Open carry laws in Alabama reserve the right for citizens to carry licensed weapons in public venues.
Later on, not entirely unsurprisingly, a chaotic family Thanksgiving dinner erupts in violence.
A Body’s Just as Dead is sprinkled with illuminating asides that touch the heart and reveal character. ‘Janeeca’, the stage name of a stripper at the T&A Lounge, says, ‘People are more interested in what they want to believe about you than in the truth.’ ‘She took a breath and forced a smile again.’ And Lilith Ann’s sudden tears ‘spilling onto the periwinkle sleeve that lay across her lap’ reveal an unexpected tenderness in a matriarch who has had to be tough all her life and is now aware of her encroaching frailty.
Guns are also a signifier of the structural violence that underpins and constrains individuals and communities, whether it be the Monsanto factory that poisoned waterways, the closed steel mill and the empty shops, or the recurring need for warfare to justify national ideologies and the nation’s vast military. Jack’s Uncle Baxter, for instance, ‘After [his] stint in Vietnam … spent time in a VA hospital before being referred to a home for people who were “not right in the head.”’ Baxter once ‘insisted that he had a microchip in his neck, implanted by his dentist during a tooth extraction at the behest of the NSA.’ He is also much given to uttering cryptic quotations: ‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep’; ‘Humour is a distancing mechanism for the emotionally insecure.’
There are no jobs for educated young women like Magda, Lilith Ann’s acerbic daughter, no matter what her mother claims:
Of course the jobs [Lilith Ann] was referring to were cashier at Dollar General or Walmart, and baker’s assistant at the Piggly Wiggly. ‘I know you’ve got yourself a college degree, but your daddy and I didn’t pay for it so’s you could take it all the way to China.’
On top of everything else, there is a characteristic distrust of government and anything that smacks of concerted attempts to assist those in dire need of help.
‘Yeah, but you know we don’t have insurance,’ said Kimmy. ‘Robert said he wasn’t going to have that Obamacare the government forced down his throat. Said he’d rather pay the penalty than have the government telling him what to do.’ Kimmy sat back with a smug expression.
‘And that’s exactly the attitude that put him in jail,’ said Magda … ‘So Robert refused to buy something that his family needs that he couldn’t afford before Obamacare made it available just so he can say he’s not going to buy it? And now you can’t get the medicine you need for your kids? Do you hear how asinine that is?’
While A Body’s Just as Dead is thoroughly immersed in its Alabama milieu, it also takes time to broaden our sympathies and place it in wider context:
When people in Pete-O’s country were dumping tea in Boston Harbor and attempting to annihilate the indigenous peoples of what would become the United States of America, Liu Peng’s ancestors were rooted in their central Chinese village, growing their own tea.
In the United States, Peng adjusts as best she can and even takes pleasure from her uncomprehending appreciation of His Girl Friday on television.
Recent controversies about the removal of Confederate war memorials, along with the continuing refusal to acknowledge the genocide of native Americans and the legacies of slavery, are all part of the selective amnesia that grips a deeply troubled culture. And this is exactly how history gets forgotten:
Anniston was known by some as the place where a Freedom Riders bus was fire-bombed by a mob of whites when it tried to pass through the town. When the bus was ablaze, the mob held the doors shut in an attempt to burn the riders alive, but then some say the fuel tank exploded and the mob dispersed. It was a story Robert had never heard before, and he had no idea it was part of Anniston’s legacy. His mother remembered the burned bus, but she never spoke of it to any of her children. This is how the chapters of a town’s history begin to die. People just stop talking about the parts that aren’t nice, and soon what people claim as their history becomes a rag full of holes.
Cast adrift from the untidy realities of the nation’s bloody history, living a life of Target cards, unpaid bills, daily humiliations and frustrated masculinity, men like Robert can only wonder where it all went wrong:
I’ve had the life squeezed out of me everywhere I go. I get shorted every time I get work, and most of the time I can’t get no work. It’s not supposed to be this way. It was never supposed to be this way. Daddy worked at the steel plant all those years and everything was fine. What happened, Mama? Why can’t things be like they were then?
A Body’s Just as Dead has a wonderful, unemphatic ending that hints at the resiliency of people tied together in a family that threatens always to break apart but never quite does. ‘“Can’t you put aside your little hate mail-writing business long enough to put baby Joseph, Mary and Jesus in your window?”’ Kimmy asks Magda at one point. Yes she can.
For many years, much ‘serious’ American fiction – particularly from authors trained by programmes in creative writing – has followed the tiresome trend for microscopicity, whereby the steady accretion of tiny data-packets of description is (presumably) intended to build a world, or at least supply atmosphere. In the wrong hands this exhausts the patience of readers, especially when the writing is stuffed with unlikely adjectives and freighted with ‘significance’. Mercifully, Cathy Adams eschews this practice and writes with a refreshing directness that doesn’t waste time pursuing special effects. Her work seems effortless, which means it takes a great deal of effort, artistry and intelligence. Without exception, her characters are fully realized, interesting and complex; each has his or her own voice. They are from the working class and the underclass, and occasionally the criminal class. Their tragi-comic story is engaged with our times and resonates precisely with the national zeitgeist. A Body’s Just as Dead entertains us, enlightens us, moves us. It is a fine novel and a joy to read.
SFK Press | ISBN 9780997951868 (pbk) | ISBN 9780997951875 (eBook)