Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, October 18, 2010

John McManus, _Bitter Milk_

NINE-YEAR-OLD Loren Garland, who lives in the shadow of Mt. Chilhowee in eastern Tennessee, has more that the usual kit of problems. He is drastically overweight. His teacher and his classmates persecute him. His relatives, variously deranged, are no friendlier. His imaginary friend, Luther, has a discernibly diabolic streak, and has killed off Loren's other imaginary friends, seven male and three female. His mother, Avery, is gender-dysphoric and without any explanation to Loren has taken advantage of a financial windfall (sale of the family's land to a sleazy brother-in-law real estate developer) to head out of town for sexual reassignment surgery, leaving Loren in the care of his alarming relatives.

An after-school special scripted by Flannery O'Connor? But there are further twists. The imaginary friend, Luther, is the narrator. Is he somehow more real than imaginary, more tempter than friend? When we read of him "walking up and down in the hallway," are we to think of the Adversary in the Book of Job, "going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it"? When Luther says of the deaths of Loren's other imaginary, "I alone had escaped to tell the story," are we again being clued to think of Job? Or when Luther makes a kind of bet with Avery over which of them Loren will ultimately turn to in his abandonment? Or when it turns out Loren suffers from... boils?

Yes, the Biblical Book of Job haunts the novel, Loren in Job's role, Avery in God's, Luther in Satan's, the relatives, who think they understand both Loren and Avery but actually understand neither, in the role of Job's "comforters."

The great thing about McManus's novel, though, is that this key opens things up without closing anything down. The Job parallel gives the book a spine, but it's the novel's limbs that enchant. An afternoon at the pond with step-cousin Eli, a visit to Papaw on the roof of the barn, an interview with the school principal, unscrolling like a dream (there are no chapters or other divisions in the 195-page book) as Loren navigates through and eventually masters his inexplicable abandonment.

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