When you leave whatever godforsaken place for the big city, your departure inspires rituals of hand-wringing and flurries of nervous questioning from the extended family. They watch concerned as you disappear into the vortex of banal evil where good people have no chance against the bad. But in these imaginings of the city as the heart of human darkness, we overlook the more deliberate, simmering violence of small town life.
Those little places are full of brutality, the kind that can’t be washed away, only covered like bloodstained hardwood under shag carpet. What scares small town folks most about the city is the flippancy of violence, how the guy laying his fists into you isn’t someone you’ve lived less than five miles from all your life and there’s a black hole where a family tree’s worth of history should be to connect his punches to.
It is this kind of suffocating small town violence that pervades the pages of Growing Up Dead in Texas, the new “novel” by Stephen Graham Jones. It begins with Jone’s return to Greenwood, the West Texas town he grew up in, to find out what really happened one morning in 1985 when someone set the tiny town’s cotton ablaze. But that act of arson is just the first firecracker in a long line of minor explosions. As blame shifts wildly from one person to the next, bystanders are left bloodied to a pulp, their faces or fates never quite the same. Each year the list of dead (and mangled) grows and it all has the feel of a tragic script: it’s not over until everybody has been wounded, from cheerleader to King.
Jones was only twelve when this all happened, too young to fit the pieces together but sensitive enough to feel dark forces at work. He takes us from one secret to the next, each unturned stone smeared with blood. Earlier I called this journey into the past a “novel” because that’s what the cover claims. But Jones comes right out in the preface and states “…this wasn’t going to be a novel.” Then one paragraph later, he’s telling us he doesn’t think non-fiction is possible. What are we to believe? Novel, memoir, fiction, non-fiction? There will be no answer.
Unrelenting in his insecurity, Jones struggles defiantly with the expectations of his form and documents his exasperation at every step. In each statement there hangs a question as he takes aim at his own authority. Does he really have to change people’s names? Can he tell little lies for the sake of story? Does he have to tell us when he lies? Towards the end of the book, Jones seems to be begging, Must I go on like this?
While I was sucked into the intricacies of the mystery, constructing in my mind one of those tack boards you see in the background of cop procedural shows, the most rewarding parts of the book are when Jones unlocks his own memories. His account is as full of his own secrets as the secrets of the townspeople. Many of those secrets include his own acts of violence, starting with all the pets he’s had to kill. The first was a kitten, born prematurely with no chance in the world. Jones, in muleskin boots still to big for him, raises a cinder block above his head and lets it fall on the doomed life before going in for breakfast without saying a word. “It was how I knew I was grown up: I had things inside me that weren’t for anybody else.”
These searching moments, when Jones looks for the spark for the being he has become, provide an intimate look at what drives a person to narrate life. He does so not only for himself but for the town itself and all the people in it, looking for where everything began.
We think of such narration as an act of creation, but Jones also reveals the destruction at the center of stories. He takes us into imagined scenes, crafting conversations he could have never heard drawing out all the sad detail and crushing precision of rural poetry where so much of the meter depends on silence. And then almost cruelly he tells us, “Lies. All of it.” He never allows us to fall completely into his deceit. He has to tell us, “This is piecemeal, secondhand, polluted, cleaned-up then tore down, worse, but still, it’s the only way it could have gone, too.” Though he points to the seams of his narrative to expose its artifice, he is at the same time praising his craft for making the past real again or at least as real as it will ever get.
Despite the confusion of genres and unhinged narration, the book has already heralded as the “break-out novel” for a writer who up to this point has been known by some as a genre writer who tells zany stories about rabbit zombies and by others as the post-modern Blackfeet writer who tells stories that sound like acid trips. While his sentences are more straightforward in this book, beginning and ending in a trajectory that is mostly followable, the story is no less complex than his other other-dimensional novels. You can always count on Jones to bring the weird. Even as he slips into the occasional cliche (a first in my experiences with him and endemic it seems to writing about rural America), he leaves the typical phrase gutted and real again by the next paragraph.
I haven’t gone much into the complexities of the plot here because that might require a mapping of major players and a detailed timeline (which Jones himself does not provide). And as fascinating as it is to watch unfold, much like the smoke rising from a cotton fire, the book is more fascinating for what it says about the story being told.
Authors, critics, and readers too are always trying to prove that stories matter to the world, that they give our society a soul and define our humanity. For Stephen Graham Jones, the story is important not just for humanity, here defined as those left behind in Greenwood, but most importantly for the one who got away, the writer himself. His story is there to lead him back to the person he tried to destroy, not in order to escape but to exorcise the desire to escape. In the beginning he tells us he has finally left West Texas behind with this book. On the last page, he says he is still watching the smoke rise on a December morning in 1985. Unlike the usual saying about fiction, these are not beautiful lies. But they are honest ones.
Book I Talked About:
Growing Up Dead in Texas, by Stephen Graham Jones. (June 12, 2012, MP Publishing Limited)