Much About Incest Is Better Left Unsaid
$22.95, 304 pp.
The Publishers Weekly blurb for the novel Billy Dead notes that it is "reminiscent of Dorothy Allison," and on the surface this comparison is very apt. Like Allison's most famous work, Bastard out of Carolina, Lisa Reardon's debut novel deals with the effect of abuse on the children of a working-class white family and is narrated by one of the children, Ray, now grown up. Ultimately, however, for various reasons Billy Dead is a weaker and less interesting work than its predecessor.
This is despite its more shocking plot. Unlike the Boatwrights of Bastard, a lively and tightly-knit group of ne'er-do-wells, the Johnsons are isolated from their extended family and ruthless towards each other, each one capable of horrible acts of cruelty. The main culprit is the father, Bill Sr., a vicious drunk who between jail stints beats his wife and children and sexually abuses his daughter Jean. Billy Jr., the dead man of the title, responds to the abuse by becoming his father's replica, repeating his father's acts first with Jean, then with his own family. Jean, the youngest and most vulnerable member of the family, becomes the toughest of the three siblings, "the only person in the world who scares me more than...Billy," according to Ray. Ray and his mother, however, react by becoming "rotten coward[s]," ignoring whatever they can and later taking refuge in long-term romantic relationships in an attempt to imitate normality.
Part of the problem may be that Reardon, attempting to be original, has eschewed using the vengeful, violent Jean--who in her viciousness somewhat resembles the protagonist of Bastard, Ruth Anne Boatwright--as the narrator, instead picking her ineffectual brother Ray. This could have been an interesting switch in points of view, and the structure of the novel, as a series of flashbacks illuminating the present-day situation, could have worked.
Unfortunately, the patches of annoying or simply bad writing mar the novel considerably. For example, Ray continually has "conversations" with inanimate objects, ghosts (such as Billy's) and animals. These are included, in some cases, for no discernible reason, such as this "exchange" with Jean's stuffed animal, the poodle Bojo: "'Scared, Bojo?' I ask him. `No,' he answers, staring straight forward." The author also leaves the reader in unnecessary suspense about what happened during the crucial "perfect summer, awful summer," includes characters with dubious importance to the plot and tells the reader too much about them. This is Ray ostensibly talking about Jill Thompson, one of his eighth grade teachers and a character which could be eliminated with no harm to the book: "She used to play cribbage with us kids...[including] Jane Ellwey...Jane got killed in a car crash after the homecoming game my junior year...Lots of people died in cars out on those back roads over the years. I generally try to be real careful, especially at night."
Reardon is sometimes intentionally humorous, as when she is describing, through the voice of Ray, the martial arts exercises that he would do with his best friend Randy Keilman as a child: "I can see us out on his back porch when we were younger, practicing slow, deep breathing through our noses. According to his martial arts comics, a true warrior always breathed through his nose...". But ultimately, Ray's narrative voice is unconvincing more than it is funny, like a poor imitation of Bastard. Perhaps it's all the "likes" she uses:"...where I can see a couple of the guys turning away like they didn't see the whole thing. Like they don't know the whole damned story." She writes like her only option is to use that four-letter word ad nauseam.
In the abnormal and nightmarish environment in which Ray has grown up, it is perhaps almost the logical thing to do to fall in love with one's younger sister, although Ray is aware of how the outside world sees this relationship: "The more I'm seeing this through someone else's eyes, the dirtier it seems." Ray and Jean's incestuous passion impairs them from having satisfactory long-term relationships outside the family. Jean avoids them altogether, living alone and restricting herself to one-night stands. Ray's relationship with Sally, his girlfriend of six years, is a fragile thing, falling apart the moment he breaks his promise and goes to visit Jean after Billy's death. His love for Jean has also destroyed his relationship with his best friend Randy, whom Ray tries to kill after he thinks that Jean is having an affair with him.
Although it is quite obvious why Jean and Ray are having this affair--from childhood they have relied on each other in order to survive the abuse they have gone through, "holding on to each other" as Ray puts it--it is still difficult to see it as a triumphal moment when they finally run off together after a dramatic scene as they are leaving Billy's funeral. Their story is a great love affair, but it is also an incestuous escape from the outside world, which with few exceptions had chosen not to help the Johnson children in the past: "Me and Jean, we're cutting out of the whole deal," Ray declares.
While reading Billy Dead, the reader is trapped with Ray's skewed vision of the world and, what is worse, his sometimes hideously rambling narrative. To pull a novel off with a hero or heroine essentially isolated from society, the protagonist has to be vivid and interesting, which is why this novel suffers by any comparison to Bastard out of Carolina or any other tale of an abusive childhood. While Ruth Anne Boatwright remains in the reader's memory, Ray Johnson is easily forgotten, with only the horrible tales of abuse to vaguely haunt the readers, tales of suffering with blank-faced victims at the center.