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Stephen Graham Jones
Tor.com, 13 July 2017
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via NetGalley.
There is a boy (we never learn his real name, he's just referred to as Junior, the shadow of his father).
Junior has a brother, Dino, who clearly has learning disabilities.
Junior has a mother, who's doing her best to raise her boys: she brought them off the reservation to get them to a better school, even though it meant leaving behind her support network, her family and friends. She's prepared to make sacrifices.
The father, though, is absent - and from that absence this strange bitter story springs. Junior begins to think he sees his dead father (either he drowned, or he was drowned) in the house. It happens around the same as his mother takes up with the Sheriff's deputy: "a boy needs a man" she says. Into that glimpse of hope, Junior pours all his attention, all his desire.
The father, when glimpsed, is in full Native American regalia - he was a "fancy dancer", he could have been the greatest dancer ever. The father - the ghost - and his costume are described in detail several times, despite Junior only seeing glimpses of him in the shadows. Is there some ceremony going on? Is this an overworked imagination, seizing on details seen elsewhere and creating an illusion? It's ambiguous, as is the intent of the ghost (if ghost it is). Why has he come back? To heal or harm? It could be either.
The story is played out against a harsh background: poverty (a $300 dollar charge when the ambulance has to be called out - how will they pay that?), merciless bullying of Dino by the kids on the bus, the hostile neighbour, and the parched, dusty countryside. Nothing is what it seems and yet Junior's attempt to "map the interior" - examine every square inch of the house for evidence that, yes, his father was there - gives his life some purpose (even if we suspect that the interior which really needs to be mapped is his own).
It is, as I said, a bitter story and oh, such a sad one:
"In movies, after you beat the bad guy, the monster, then all the injuries it inflicted, they heal right up. That's not how it works in the real world."
And in the end, there is real horror. The kind which leaves your dreams uneasy and sends you back through the text to see if you have misread. something
This is a short book, and compulsive. It's easy to read in one sitting. The prose is often electric:
"I can see my dad slitting his eyes in the bleachers like that all those years ago. What he's doing, it's pretending. What he's doing, it's waiting".
"He hadn't made it through to graduation - who ever does?"
There are moments of such sadness: lives blighted, Dino, whose condition may (or may not) be connected with his mother's drinking (she says not: don't judge). The dog left behind ("Chuckhead hadn't come with us here. He was living on the streets now, trying to put on fat for winter, or else becoming fat for one of the bigger dogs.")
It's a hard read in many ways, a powerful book, one that stays with you afterwards.
I'd strongly recommend it.