Deep Ellum by Brandon Hobson is a haunting novel about a fractured family struggling to overcome a dysfunctional history. That's a summary that could apply to a lot of novels, but Deep Ellum, published earlier this year by Calamari Press, stands out as a miniature masterpiece of mood.

After his mother overdoses, Gideon Gray leaves Chicago and returns to Deep Ellum, a neighborhood in Dallas that has a long association with the city's arts scene and music history. Gideon is at loose ends, adrift in the world but not necessarily looking for a place to drop anchor. "To pursue solitude requires a sort of minimal desire, or maybe no desire at all. This is how I see it. To find loneliness, to become your own saint." Strangers sense this immediately about him. "You, young man, don't make good decisions."

Gideon stays at his sister Meg's apartment, but days pass before he's able to connect with Meg, his brother Basille or his ailing mother, who lives in the countryside. Gideon goes on long walks in the city, marveling at the cold.

"Snow on the roofs of buildings gleamed in the moonlight. From the rear fender of a parked car along Elm hung little icicles that sparkled. I walked past the store windows, past small mounds of dirty snow along the street. A dog was barking from somewhere above me, in one of the apartments, but besides that there was no traffic and little noise. Deep Ellum in the winter was asleep."

Along the way, he meets many of his sister's acquaintances, who drop not-so-subtle hints that Meg is in a bad way. "She talks about you a lot. I know more than you probably want me to know." He tries to communicate with his sister via text, sending messages to which she seldom responds, but that doesn't seem to bother him. When one of Meg's friends expresses his disdain for texting as a form of communication, Gideon responds with a shrug. "It beats talking."

While Gideon's post-rehab, pre-recovery malaise owes something to Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, his situation also reminds me of Jim Thompson's unfinished novel, This World, Then the Fireworks, in which the two main characters are brother and sister who also happen to be lovers. The slow accretion of information about Gideon's relationship with his sister and her current situation contributes to a feeling of dread that grows and grows while providing clues to Gideon's disconnectedness.

Even the weather, which continues to throttle Deep Ellum, takes on a menacing air. As one character comments, "This cold snap we're having is certainly no fun. The weather's extreme here, isn't it? Everywhere, really. It's not supposed to be this way."

Much of the conflict in Deep Ellum comes from Gideon's stepfather, Gene, a man who's stood by his mother through many difficult times yet is overbearing and difficult to be around. An emotional bully, Gene judges his stepchildren with the indignation of the righteous and has no compunction about designating himself as the family's long-suffering martyr: "I'd like to see a show of hands of anyone who thinks this is easy."

Gene is one of the few people who can get a rise out of Gideon, but when Gideon confronts his stepfather and demands to know what he really means, Gene takes the coward's route: "I'm speaking to everyone. You're just the person I'm looking at. If I turn my head and look at everyone I end up losing track of whatever I'm trying to say. Don't take it personally. This is a hard time for everyone."

Hard times are crucibles for family relationships. It's not uncommon at family gatherings to say, "I only see you at weddings and funerals," but both are emotionally heavy times that have the power to sunder relationships or repair old rifts. Though the characters in Deep Ellum are mired in a morass that's more extreme than most readers have ever experienced, it's one that can be undone if the members of this strange and fucked-up family can get in the same room together and agree to put old wrongs to right. Why is that so difficult for them? Why is that so difficult for any of us? 

Hobson has crafted a beautifully written exploration of reconciliation with an astonishing ending that manages to feel both inevitable and surprising. It's been a long time since I read a novel that delivers on its premise the way Deep Ellum does. 

Jim Ruland's the co-author of, Giving the Finger. He blogs at www.vermin.blogs.com/bl

Calendar

  • The renowned Mexican black and white photographer presents an exhibition exploring the principal themes within three groups: "Bestiarium"," Fantastic Women" and "Silent Natures."
  • Presented by Pacific Arts Movement, the sixth annual mini film fest features 14 film programs from 10 countries that includes everything from docs to romantic tearjerkers. See website for full lineup and...
  • Debunk some of the stereotypes surrounding cannibalism at this new exhibition that takes a hands-on approach to the subject. Includes video games and interactive activities where patrons will have to decide...
  • The former local boy and creator of the highly influential blog, Advanced Style, will be signing and discussing his third book, Advanced Style: Older and Wiser, which features inspiring pictures and stories...
  • C.J. Chenier and Bonsoir Catin headline this annual Cajun inspired festival. Also enjoy 10,000 pounds of crawfish, dancing and cooking demonstrations. Held at Spanish Landing Park, across from the...
  • A Cinco de Mayo party featuring $2 tacos, cocktails and live music from Bostich+Fussible, Javiera Mena and Gepe
  • A spoken word showcase hosted by English instructor Karla Cordero and her City College students. There will also be a special reading from poet Mercedez Holtry, as well as an art and photography show....
  • Widely known as host of "Weekend Update" on Saturday Night Live and for his role in the Showtime dramedy Weeds, Kevin Nealon brings his unique humor back to the stand-up stage
  • New works from over a dozen UCSD undergraduate students. Participating artists include Charity Algarme, Richard Lin, Joseph Maas, Ignatius Nguyen, and more
  • This video art exhibition from UCSD MFA candidate Stefani Byrd features two installations that explore the themes of breath, mediation, and the nature of time. Takes place in the VAF Performance Space,...
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