Nestled in the latter third of Patrick Nathan’s debut novel, Some Hell, is an account of the tradition in the Peruvian Andes of tying a condor to a bull. As one might imagine, both animals find themselves vexed by this situation, and rightly so. As Nathan explains, the desired finale is the condor’s pecking the bull to death—the bird’s only means of escape. If successful, the condor is “rewarded” by being force-fed an alcoholic corn beverage and “cut loose in a gesture of freedom, whether or not they’re able to fly.” A symbolic nod to Peru’s sloughing off of Spanish colonial rule, the tradition hinges on the same axis as Nathan’s novel itself—one of seemingly inescapable suffering set forth when Alan, father and husband, shoots himself in his study in the novel’s opening pages. Thereafter, the novel concerns Nathan’s dual protagonists, thirteen-year-old Colin and his mother Diane, as they slog through this new life they’ve been handed, fatherless and widowed. But Nathan’s book asserts that life doesn’t deal one bad card at a time. The family must also manage the severe mental disability of Colin’s older brother, his older sister’s angsty rebellions, Diane’s loosening grip on herself and her family, and Colin’s discovery, in time with the rest of his junior high, that he’s gay. Insert a creepy teacher, friends who will betray and abandon you at your most vulnerable, and the tandem confusions of puberty and mourning as a new widow and you have yourself a stiff cocktail of the world at its most insufferable. This is, you may already be gathering, not a novel of sunshine and daisies. And indeed, Nathan is unflinching in his willingness to heap horribleness atop his characters. But tragedy and tough circumstance are not what set Nathan’s first novel apart. Rather, it is his nearly singular commitment to a pure, principally documentary type of story that saves his novel from devolving into a lesser pornography of pain, the kind of exploitive book that invites readers to revel in someone else’s tragedy. Nathan’s is instead a clear, simple—but in no way simplistic—recounting of human suffering. So it’s fitting that Nathan has already drawn comparisons to another clear-eyed midwestern writer, William Maxwell. As in Maxwell’s narratives—and those of another midwestern writer, Louise Erdrich—Nathan filters the hardships of Some Hell through the self-conscious, searching eyes of youth. Yet, Maxwell and Erdrich’s characters often benefit from hindsight, an implicit signal that time passes, painful memories of youth fade. These voices are learned, nostalgic, ambivalent but intent in their melancholy missions to preserve slivers of the past before they work themselves out, scab over, and heal. Nathan’s is not. His prose throbs like a wound still open, his voice that of someone who isn’t interested in healing. He attempts no Nabokovian acrobatics, no Cormac McCarthy spareness or Toni Morrison-esque poetic energy. He conveys instead a voice that seems singularly intent on capturing the ambivalence, discomfort, guilt, and overwhelming pain of a life wrought by hardship that refuses to end. It is a plainly, vulnerably, human voice.
And, like humans, and first novels, the book has flaws. The strictest students of literature will find clichés and boilerplate literary devices dangling in its pages. Does every anguished literary character have to chain smoke cigarettes for us to understand they are in pain? Still, like many great and seemingly quite personal first novels, the book shines in its devotion to the merit of its narrative, committing itself more to illustrating the tangled web of human strife at its core than concerning itself with the occasional cliché, the overused symbol, the interpretation and evaluation that so-often follow the setting down of words on paper. But Nathan’s novel also seems to challenge the critic not to open this book in search of enlightening philosophical digressions or twinkling wordplay. You won’t find them. It suggests instead that you approach it as you might an unromantic portrayal of war—not to be entertained, but to hold bloody pages and read an honest report from the frontlines of suffering. Nathan’s words, after all, seem not so much written to wring the beauty from horror, but out of a lack of options. His book begs the question: what do you do with a story like this, but tell it? Readers be warned; this is, somehow, a beautiful book, but it is not a pretty one. Nathan’s novel often burdens his characters in such unrelenting fashion that you may very well want to put it down, only to find yourself already reading the next sentence, ashamedly curious to know just how bad Colin and Diane’s lives will get, if they’ll ever find a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, reading this novel oftentimes feels like rolling slowly by a car accident and wracking your brain to understand why you have the inclination to look into the wreckage, wondering, meanwhile, how something this terrible could happen, all the while knowing that of course this happens, you knew that already. But being faced with it is a is a different animal entirely. It’s a condor tied to a bull—the kind of painful catch-22 that makes Patrick Nathan’s first novel both deeply troubling, and an undeniably visceral assertion that lives like his characters’ exist.