Deep Ellum by Brandon Hobson is a haunting novel about a fractured family struggling to overcome a dysfunctional history. That's a summary that could apply to a lot of novels, but Deep Ellum, published earlier this year by Calamari Press, stands out as a miniature masterpiece of mood.
After his mother overdoses, Gideon Gray leaves Chicago and returns to Deep Ellum, a neighborhood in Dallas that has a long association with the city's arts scene and music history. Gideon is at loose ends, adrift in the world but not necessarily looking for a place to drop anchor. "To pursue solitude requires a sort of minimal desire, or maybe no desire at all. This is how I see it. To find loneliness, to become your own saint." Strangers sense this immediately about him. "You, young man, don't make good decisions."
Gideon stays at his sister Meg's apartment, but days pass before he's able to connect with Meg, his brother Basille or his ailing mother, who lives in the countryside. Gideon goes on long walks in the city, marveling at the cold.
"Snow on the roofs of buildings gleamed in the moonlight. From the rear fender of a parked car along Elm hung little icicles that sparkled. I walked past the store windows, past small mounds of dirty snow along the street. A dog was barking from somewhere above me, in one of the apartments, but besides that there was no traffic and little noise. Deep Ellum in the winter was asleep."
Along the way, he meets many of his sister's acquaintances, who drop not-so-subtle hints that Meg is in a bad way. "She talks about you a lot. I know more than you probably want me to know." He tries to communicate with his sister via text, sending messages to which she seldom responds, but that doesn't seem to bother him. When one of Meg's friends expresses his disdain for texting as a form of communication, Gideon responds with a shrug. "It beats talking."
While Gideon's post-rehab, pre-recovery malaise owes something to Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, his situation also reminds me of Jim Thompson's unfinished novel, This World, Then the Fireworks, in which the two main characters are brother and sister who also happen to be lovers. The slow accretion of information about Gideon's relationship with his sister and her current situation contributes to a feeling of dread that grows and grows while providing clues to Gideon's disconnectedness.
Even the weather, which continues to throttle Deep Ellum, takes on a menacing air. As one character comments, "This cold snap we're having is certainly no fun. The weather's extreme here, isn't it? Everywhere, really. It's not supposed to be this way."
Much of the conflict in Deep Ellum comes from Gideon's stepfather, Gene, a man who's stood by his mother through many difficult times yet is overbearing and difficult to be around. An emotional bully, Gene judges his stepchildren with the indignation of the righteous and has no compunction about designating himself as the family's long-suffering martyr: "I'd like to see a show of hands of anyone who thinks this is easy."
Gene is one of the few people who can get a rise out of Gideon, but when Gideon confronts his stepfather and demands to know what he really means, Gene takes the coward's route: "I'm speaking to everyone. You're just the person I'm looking at. If I turn my head and look at everyone I end up losing track of whatever I'm trying to say. Don't take it personally. This is a hard time for everyone."
Hard times are crucibles for family relationships. It's not uncommon at family gatherings to say, "I only see you at weddings and funerals," but both are emotionally heavy times that have the power to sunder relationships or repair old rifts. Though the characters in Deep Ellum are mired in a morass that's more extreme than most readers have ever experienced, it's one that can be undone if the members of this strange and fucked-up family can get in the same room together and agree to put old wrongs to right. Why is that so difficult for them? Why is that so difficult for any of us?
Hobson has crafted a beautifully written exploration of reconciliation with an astonishing ending that manages to feel both inevitable and surprising. It's been a long time since I read a novel that delivers on its premise the way Deep Ellum does.