by Patrick Nathan
Graywolf Press, 2018
Patrick Nathan's debut novel Some Hell is as sharp and merciless a coming-of-age story as has yet to appear in 2018, and it also feels like something of a remedy, a quick restorative after a few too many pale, saccharine versions of itself.
The book tells the story of a family ripped apart by tragedy. Young teenager Colin, the book's main and most memorable character, is dealing with both the typical crass brutalities of middle school and with the inner conflict of being gay and attracted to his friend Andy – an attraction Nathan describes in a swooping, vertiginous rhetoric that immediately brings the book to life. Colin dreams about Andy, “but he knew if Andy touched him he'd burst as helplessly and iridescently as a soap bubble.”
Such touching inevitably happens, prompted by a game of truth-or-dare conducted at gunpoint, and although Andy rather stubbornly remains an opaque character throughout, the moment is a heartbreakingly delusional revelation for Colin:
Colin had always suspected Andy was lying to the boys at the lunch table, but a dark part of him had hoped, all along. Even so, it was difficult for either boy to be disappointed, and long before it was over the gun was nestled among the sleeping bag's folds. Colin no longer cared about his clothes, not even with the certainty of hell ahead of him. Because Andy too would be in hell. They would be in love, and their suffering would only be suffering until he had swallowed the other's pain.
The pain of desire and humiliation Colin feels in connection with Andy and his classmates is overshadowed by the aforementioned tragedy: Colin's father has killed himself, and this bewildering wound at the heart of the family pulses and bleeds throughout the book, splintering natural family alliances and driving Colin's mother and siblings into isolated and near-frantic attempts at self-preservation. Nathan skillfully and delicately weaves mysteries and even a road trip, but his tendencies always seem to tack inward; Colin is an inward character, and his harshest new understandings of his father come from reading the private written records his father left behind:
It wasn't a list at all. Instead, his father had written in paragraphs, and after the first page Colin couldn't tell whether his father had died once before and had come back to life, was dead and haunting their basement, or had been to hell while he was still alive. He'd even drawn pictures of things he couldn't describe. In hell a demon kept him company, leading him through the parts you couldn't navigate alone. The demon is kind, his father had written, and you could feel the sadness with which he'd noticed this.
Some Hell is a strangely quiet book and an indomitably brave one. It avoids easy answers, cheap sentimentality, and especially the thinly-described cynical voyeurism that's been characterizing far too much gay fiction in recent years. It has the unevenness that's more or less a defining feature of debut fiction, but its strengths are impressive.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.