Erik Simon's Reviews > Breathing Out the Ghost

Breathing Out the Ghost by Kirk Curnutt
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Jun 05, 08

Read in June, 2008

This is an unbelievable novel--profound, painful, unflinching, frank, moving, disturbing, wise. It takes on an enormously difficult subject--children, the worst that can happen to children, or the loss of children through death, murder, disappearance--and it offers no easy answers, no painless endings, no trenchant beliefs. Let me correct myself. Faulkner once said that he distrusted ideas, that stories were borne of characters, and I think he's right. And Curnutt is far too capable a writer to submit to ideas for fiction, so actually, this book doesn't take on an enormously difficult subject; rather, it takes on enormously pained and complex characters--one intelligent man whose son has been missing for a year, one wise farmer's wife whose daughter was murdered years ago, a pedophile, a private eye who got emotionally and inextricably bound in the first character's Ahab-like pursuit of his son--it takes these characters, has them stumble together, and it plays itself out. Beautifully. Painfully. Intelligently. Here are the things I like most about this book:

It doesn't psycholgize. Isaac Singer, in the introduction to his collection of stories, warns against writers using psychology, and not enough writers have heeded the warnings. (Please no more revalations on an analyst's chair, as if such worthy revalations are even possible there. Please expunge the word "dysfunctional" from our society. Please. I digress.) Curnutt doesn't psychologize. He doesn't try to explain why these people are doing what they're doing, why they are who they are, even the pedophile. He just lets them all do it, and he passes no judgment.

It tells the story from multiple points of view. I love a book that does that. I love a book that bounces from character to character and creates a tapestry of so many different yet definitive and interconnected threads.

I love its rendering of the Midwest. There's that paragraph in Gatsby wherein Nick says, "That was my Middle West," and then goes on about the old houses and all that. Well, those days are gone. The Middle West is now about farmers who combine in air-conditioned tractors, families who prefer canned vegetables to anything in a garden, etc. That's a generalization, of course, but that duality is the Middle West I grew up in, one in which there is a clash between the modern and, as Curnutt writes, "a time that grew more remote with each passing season." And yet, just as soon as one character leaves a Wal-Mart, another character is out castrating pigs (which I've done) or cutting the tails off of newborn piglets (which I've done). Curnutt captures this dichotomy of the Midwest more accurately than anyone else I've read.

He also captures the people well. The wittiest people I have ever known were those farmers back home. They're funny sons of guns, as are the women. Curnutt knows this.

The writing. I love the writing. When Curnutt needs to move the plot along, he does so with long sentences (my favorite kind; size matters) and clear prose; and when he doesn't feel a pressing need to move the plot along, he luxuriates in extraordinary prose. Wish more writers did.

This is a superb novel. It won't cheer you up, but I'm tired of that being held as a standard. It was Kafka who said fiction needs to be the pickaxe to break the frozen seas of our inner selves, or something like that. And for those who prefer their fiction to act as therapy, there won't be anyone you can relate to, but it was Eudora Welty who said that the great thing about fiction is that it compels us to see the world through someone else's eyes. The characters in this book are indelible. The stories--heartbreaking. This book is the real thing.
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Erik Simon Been wonderin' where the hell you were, Trace. Ain't happened upon your thread since Obama became THE MAN (although he was always the man; it's just official now).


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