Friday, December 4, 2015

Pulitzer Project: A Death in the Family

The 1958 Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction, A Death in the Family is unusual in that the novel was published after the author, James Agee, was dead. Agee had been working with his editors on the final draft of the novel, a fictionalized account of his father's sudden death in an automobile accident, when he died himself. Agee dropped dead of a heart attack in a New York taxi in 1955.

Many of the events in the novel are told from the perspective of a young boy, Rufus, a character Agee modeled on himself. Agee was 6 years old when his father died. If this novel is an accurate reflection of how the adults around him behaved I can only say it's no wonder the adult Agee had major problems with alcohol. Among other things, instead of coming right out and telling the kids their father is dead, the adults start off by trying to sugar coat it with convoluted explanations and really weird phrasings: "God put your father to sleep."  Holy wah, even a 6-year-old knows what the word "dead" means even if they don't always grasp just how final it is.

A Death in the Family is a fairly slender book and proved remarkably fast and easy to read. Agee had a poet's way with words -- the prose flows. I picked the book up from the library on Monday and finished it Wednesday evening. The narrative is a little choppy, with flashbacks to Rufus's early childhood before his younger sister was born as well as a noticeable gap in the description of the reason his father was away from home with the car, but the flaws aren't much of a distraction. I am a little curious as to which version of the book I read. I didn't realize it until I Googled Agee to find his biography, but there are two published versions of the novel. Because Agee died before the final edits were done, his publisher completed the work with his editors at the time making assumptions about how the book should be structured. Then a number of years ago an Agee scholar decided to re-edit the book based on Agee's original manuscripts and "restore" it to something theoretically closer to the author's vision. The edition I read did include a foreword in which the editor explains that the book was incomplete at the time of the Agee's death. I am not, however, curious enough to go looking for both versions to do a side-by-side comparison.

Would I recommend this book to other readers? Maybe. It is readable. It's another book that falls into the middle of the pack among the Pulitzer winners. It's not great, but it also doesn't stink. Some sections are quite good -- the contrast between the way the adults keep reassuring themselves that the dead guy never knew what happened, his death was from a freak accident and he never suffered, and the way Rufus's schoolmates keep embellishing the accident (they're all convinced Rufus's father was squashed by the car, totally flattened like a bug under someone's foot) was striking. It also seemed to be a pretty accurate description of the knack kids have for imagining the absolute worst and then making it even gorier. I liked the descriptions of everyday life in the days when automobiles were still a novelty and shopping involved going to stores where you'd talk to a clerk who would then get the items down from incredibly high shelves and wrap it in brown paper.

On the other hand, A Death in the Family does contain language that today's readers can find jarring. It shouldn't be a surprise that a book set in early 20th century Knoxville, Tennessee, would contain some casual racism, but I can see where this is yet another book where if a person were using it in a classroom today you'd end up having to do a little speech reminding people the book was published almost 60 years ago. Then again, if readers have to be warned that there was a time when people actually spelled out the N-word instead of tiptoeing around it, maybe those readers should stick to reading Harlequin romances.

Next up on the Pulitzer list, The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor, which won in 1962. I've already read the winners for 1959 (The Travels of Jamie McPheeters), 1960 (Advise and Consent), and 1961 (To Kill a Mockingbird) so get to skip a few years. I have finally made it to the decades where I read a number of the winners shortly after they were published. Maybe I will manage to complete the Pulitzer project before I die after all. 

1 comment:

  1. I read that book so many years ago I can't even remember much about it or if I liked it..will have to try it again..didn't they make a movie of it?


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.