Friday, June 28, 2013

A Death in the Family (by James Agee)

Also known as #99! That's right, I now have only one book left to finally finish the Time 100 list: Gravity's Rainbow. I figured I might as well end with another giant difficult behemoth of a book, as that seems to be my tradition. But before I dig into that one, let's talk about A Death in the Family by James Agee.

This is quite an interesting book structurally, and reminds me of Faukner's As I Lay Dying, although it's more accessible. It isn't just the central premise of a central family member dying, or the compressed time period in which it takes place, but also the continual point of view shifts. We see the action through the father, the mother, and each of the children, as well as some other members of the family. It's impressionistic in that way. There are also flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness passages.

It's also poetic and meditative and rather beautiful. The whole part about Rufus (the young boy who I think of as the main character) trying to negotiate the social world of the neighborhood boys sticks in my mind, and the opening sequence especially is gorgeous. I mean the first sentence: "We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child." I mean, how terrific is that?  This is another book and author I hadn't known anything about (all I know is what I read on the back of the cover, which said Agee died when he was 45, not long after the book was published) but am very glad to have been introduced to. I know I've said it before, and no doubt I'll say it again, but this has been an outstanding book list.

I'm going to end with a long quote, because it's so beautiful and it makes me cry and I don't want to cut it down:

“How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again. You can go home, it's good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life. And what's it all for? All I tried to be, all I ever wanted and went away for, what's it all for?

Just one way, you do get back home. You have a boy or a girl of your own and now and then you remember, and you know how they feel, and it's almost the same as if you were your own self again, as young as you could remember.

And God knows he was lucky, so many ways, and God knows he was thankful. Everything was good and better than he could have hoped for, better than he ever deserved; only, whatever it was and however good it was, it wasn't what you once had been, and had lost, and could never have again, and once in a while, once in a long time, you remembered, and knew how far you were away, and it hit you hard enough, that little while it lasted, to break your heart.”



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