WHEN A young writer publishes his first novel, there is a certain excitement, an anticipation that he may become one of the chroniclers of his generation. With the recent publication of Life in the Land of the Living, there is exactly that hope for its author, Daniel Vilmure, a 1987 graduate of Harvard College.
Life in the Land of the Living
By Daniel Vilmure
Alfred A. Knopf; 225 pp.; $15.95.
Vilmure clearly is determined to take on that goal. He makes his first novel his own, in theme, voice and imagery. Life in the Land of the Living is set in contemporary Florida--where Vilmure grew up--and follows two brothers as they take off into the oppressive heat of a southern August night. Victims of a broken home, the nameless brothers tell of their experiences with the violent and the gruesome as they wander through their desolate town.
The two brothers escape the house of their drunken father and discover the meaning of the book's epigraph, a line from a Bruce Springsteen song, "Nothin' feels better than blood on blood." Violence pervades the novel. In the course of one night, the older brother fights with his father, his brother and grocery store bagboys, and the two brothers witness a rape and murder at a drive-in James Dean movie.
The violence of the night culminates in the older brother's dreamlike murder of the man he first thought to be his father and in the two brother's building of a live funeral pyre for their mother, who abandoned them, and her live-in lover. The two watch the blaze in wonderment from a backyard ditch, as children see a Christmas tree light up and an insect burn in the glare of a magnifying glass.
IT IS blood that makes the two boys brothers. It is blood that is evidence of life and blood that is evidence of death.
The violence, though, is not gory. Rather, it is cold and stark, emblematic of their shattered family and fragmented society. Vilmure approaches violence with the insight of an older, more weathered author, and the awe and pain of a child on first discovery.
The boys are nameless throughout the book. At first Vilmure appears not to name the two out of a disregard for names, an apathy. But as the story progresses, the significance of a name, or the lack thereof, becomes evident.
The drunken and beat up father tells the older brother he is not his son, a theme of uncertainty reminiscent of earlier Southern writers William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren. In anguish, the older brother orders the younger one not to call him by his name. He feels he has no identity, that he belongs to no one and deserves no name.
On his way to steal alcohol, the older brother comes across a drunk, who asks his name but then tells him:
Hush! Hush! Names aren't important, that's one thing life's taught me. Only reason you learn a name is so you can remember to forget it. Yes Jesus sir. I'll remember you, boy, but the hell if you expect me to remember your name.
Even the poor, you know.
Ironically, the older brother adopts the alcoholism and abusiveness of the father, constantly needing "medicine" to make it through the moment and hitting his younger brother in a drunken rage. But he is not just "mean," as his younger brother describes him at one point. The teenager is looking for salvation, journeying within the city limits, searching for good.
IN FLASHBACKS, the older boy recalls the baptism of his baby brother and being told by his parents that he has not been baptized. In the course of the story, the older brother struggles to find purification. After his father tells him he is not his son, he swims the harbor looking for purification. Instead he finds himself vomitting on the other side. He lies in ditchwater and in sewage, hoping to cleanse himself. He enters a church and baptizes himself, pouring Holy Water over his gasoline-and blood-soaked body. But in the end it is his own blood that saturates his body and guides him to death.
The novel experiments with modes of narration. Vilmure borrows Faulkner's method of narrating through more than one persona, as each brother tells part of the story. The younger brother's narration is skillfully executed, as he relates what a child sees. Vilmure follows the boy's mind processes perceptively and eloquently.
The older brother's narration, however, falls short. Vilmure, unable to create a distinct voice for the disturbed teenager, relies on interspersed, italicized flashbacks to distinguish the older brother's words. But Vilmure's struggle to give a voice to the illiterate older brother is admirable, speech being his only way of communicating with the world.
Vilmure emphasizes style in the novel, as he searches for his own voice and identity and looks for a new direction in literature. Although he began writing the book as a college freshman, Vilmure is remarkably adept at conveying the internal and external struggles of life. Life in the Land of the Living equates life with death, depicting the several dimensions of both. The novel is a compelling one, especially for so young an artist.
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