Kenyon Blomquist's Reviews > A Death in the Family

A Death in the Family by James Agee
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May 20, 11

bookshelves: 20th-century, american, literature, pulitzer-prize-winners
Read from May 17 to 20, 2011

James Agee's 1957 novel was published posthumously (he was a thrice-married drinker and smoker, dead of a heart-attack at 45) and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1958. Until the publication of this semi-autobiographical novel (Agee's father was killed in a car-crash when he was six), Agee's reputation was that of a solidly second-tier magazine writer and prominent film critic for The Nation. He dabbled in screen-writing as well, garnering writing credits on such classics as the Bogart vehicle African Queen and The Night of the Hunter, which Charles Laughton (The Hunchback of Nortre-Dame; Captain Bligh) directed.

Given this mixed-media background, A Death in the Family takes a rather conventional narrative form, told primarily from the viewpoint of the six-year old boy, Rufus, whose father, Jay, is suddenly killed when his "Tin Lizzie" Ford shakes apart on the back roads of Tennessee while hurrying home from visiting his father, who had  just suffered a (minor) heart-attack. The death is instantaneous, and the verb used is "killed;" if you're looking to take solace from a well-thought-out description of a conventional death (i.e. the decline that accompanies a terminal illnesses or the inevitable end that is preceded by a long period of senescence) you will find yourself less than satisfied.

It's not that the book deals poorly with the subject of death - there are the requisite references to the "indifference" of death and allusions to both the Catholic God who harvests at will for his own better purposes and the atheistic sense that we are so many flies awaiting the cosmic swatter) - there are the passages that cast the body as clay that only a soul can animate - but the reader doesnt feel the loss...the loss of possibility, the rituals of family interrupted, the disorientation that occurs when a loved one is lost. There is only a single passage that suggests that the widow (I've already forgotten her name) recognizes that she will have to undergo a dissoultion and reconstitution of self before she can move on as an entity with a past.

I chose to read this book based soley upon the title and the Pulitzer attached to it - that, and the fact that I am witnessing the slow death of my mother from brain cancer. We're at the point where she is in a hospice facility with something like 4 to 10 days to live. I spend hours with her each day and try to make sense of her delerium and extract from the shell of what IS some nugget of the truth of who she WAS. It is a constant searching, as well as an interminable waiting. This is the type of death that I am confronting: the well-anticipated and (almost) accepted reality that what draws breath today may draw breath tomorrow but possibly not the day after. It's like a drawn-out breakup, with hope fuelling an otherwise exhausted, evaporated mind that will eventually collapse.

Obituaries of well-known people are written in advance. This is how I at the present: that my mother is an obituary already written but waiting to be posted. 

And what of me? Right now I am still who I am, I still have a mother - that's not in the past tense...but what will I become? How will I endure? 

Am I effectively conveying what Agee's book is, and is not? Agee takes as his starting point the post-mortem (not literally, there are severeal chapters predicate to Jay's death that describe Knoxville in 1915 and the timid and feminine character of 4 to 6 year-old Rufus) and his end-point is a casket in the ground with canned, or taped-up, or recycled epitaphs that make a reasonably plastered mausoleium to something, but this is not a book about what it takes to deal with death, real death. It is not about being a witness, an imbecile in limbo, or a survivor - considering all the emotion, dogma, uncertainty, waiting, anxiety and destruction that accompany death, James Agee's book seems rather pithy, a thin broth barely worth feeding to those truly experiencing loss.         
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Reading Progress

05/17/2011 page 175
55.0% "I'm reading this book as my mother lies in her death bed. Certain passages seem particularly poignant, even thought this author (who was primarily a critic and magazine writer) has been largely forgotten. Cf. The Death of Ivan Illych by Tolstoy for an alternate take."

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