Szplug's Reviews > A Death in the Family

A Death in the Family by James Agee
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Apr 12, 11

Agee's autobiographical masterpiece was still in unfinished form when he died—a labour of love for him, he apparently tinkered with its content and structure endlessly. What he was producing was a remarkable, plenitudinous look at a relatively mundane subject: the effect of the death of a young, strong, and good man on his wife, children and family. We are introduced to this average, likeable Tennessee family—based upon Agee's own childhood—dealing with their daily share of struggles, troubles and minor triumphs and given periodic glimpses through life's window at their unfolding story, leading up to the moment of great travail. The doomed husband, Jay Follet, is a man's man, a strong, sturdy, masculine figure who is struggling with his recent abstention from alcohol, with trying to raise two children with little money and few prospects, and dealing with the permanent sadness his devout wife bears towards his atheistic temperament.

The division between belief and unbelief straddles the entire book, as does the difference between Jay and such as his weak, insecure, and drink-beholden brother, whose intentions to display a firm responsibility and assured manner upon the perceived passing of his and Jay's own father—a mistaken diagnosis which calls Jay out upon his fateful trip—revealed only the general pitying contempt he is held within and his own collapse into the burning comfort of a liquid self-pity. This contrasts with Jay's calm strength and stolidity, which draws and reassures his shy, sensitive son, Rufus—a stand-in for Agee—whilst terrifying him with its mysterious potency and seeming unattainability. Yet such scenes as when Jay, in the midst of stealing a quick, backsliding nip, lifts his boy up onto a bar counter and proudly watches him charm the tavern patrons, or afterwards pauses with his son on a hill overlooking their town and places his hand steadily and affectionately atop the child's head, are sparsely worded moments that Agee fills with a tension, a meaning, a resonance familiar to all.

So it is that we come to feel a sense of kinship with the characters. In this manner, when Jay is killed in a traffic mishap, the grief and shock are that much more real, and hits the reader in a stark and visceral manner. I've never before read a novel that drew me so effortlessly into the sentiments and emotional turmoil of its characters and would not let go. I was shattered when Andrew, the brother of Jay's wife, Mary, reluctantly enters the house to give the grim news all know is coming, with eyes like splintered glass. The fatality derived from that commonality in so many of life's journeys, a happenstance; in this instance one involving an otherwise insignificant, mass-produced cotter pin. The banal circumstance of the accident—and the guilt Mary is burdened with by having instinctively believed that her missing husband had succumbed to the lure of drink—serves as a lightning rod for the various family members, re-introduced to a terrible separating pain and aroused within their representative positions of drawing solace from, or bearing anger towards, the Christian faith.

It is all done with a perfect pitch. There are no false scenes in the book. There is no melodrama or bathos. The relationship of Rufus with his parents is movingly recounted, as well as the utter confusion and fear that are engendered in the boy by the loss of his father. Using flashbacks of the family softly singing with each other under the stars, interacting with visiting relatives, and soothing Rufus' night terrors, Agee manages to paint touching portraits of the bonds between parents and children, husband and wife, a gentleness and kindliness to this hard-framed, firm-jawed man. There is also an opening vista which, although unrelated to the story itself, is as lovely a piece of prose as you are likely to find. In the Bantam edition that I read, the editors commented on this beautiful classic being a near perfect work of art; and there's naught I can add to that other than complete agreement.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Ethan Fulwood I have to disagree with "trying to raise two children with little money and few prospects." There's no indication that the Follets are poor. They own an automobile and live in a solidly middle class neighborhood. Jay's struggles, for example the suggestion that he's studying law, seem to be entirely from his own ambition, not from a dire need.

message 2: by Szplug (last edited May 19, 2012 10:34AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug Well, you may be right, Ethan. I can't seem to find my copy of this book—I just might have loaned it out, though that seems like a crazy thing to have done—and hence cannot dig up any support for my take beyond that of an admittedly porous memory. It's embarrassing and regrettable to have forgotten details of a book that I truly treasure, but my recollection is that Jay's prior preference for the drink had left the family financially uncertain. Until I can find evidence to back that position, however, the GR chair umpire will probably call it Advantage, Ethan.

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