Writing a novel with a narrator observer sounds straightforward but, as anyone who attempts it for the first time discovers, it is actually pretty hard to do well. The pitfalls are many: ask any commissioning editor. Often, the observer narrator winds up being a passive stand-in for the author and, instead of a novel with a central story that drives it forward, we get a series of scenes strung together by wry quips and shallow insights.
Those considering trying the form should pick up Steven Hayward’s latest novel, Don’t Be Afraid, and use it as a contemporary blueprint. It is a funny, touching book that uses its narrator observer to brilliant effect. Credit Hayward’s experience and technique. He is no neophyte. Don’t Be Afraid is his third novel; his second, The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke, won Italy’s Premio Grinzane Cavour Prize. It established Hayward as a promising author who is able to write funny prose that draws laughs while connecting with readers on an emotional level. Don’t Be Afraid builds on this success. It is an artful examination of one family’s grief as viewed through the eyes of a bashful, chubby 17-year-old narrator observer named Jimmy Morrison who bears no resemblance to his dashing, self-destructive 1960 rocker namesake. This Jim Morrsion is a survivor.
Unlike most novels revolving around a wise-cracking teenage male, Don’t Be Afraid is not a Bildungsroman. It is not so much a coming-of-age novel as it is a coming-to-terms novel. As the book begins we find the Morrison family of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, reeling from the worst possible loss—the death of a child. Four months earlier, one November night in 1989, the local library was blown sky high. There were two casualties: Jimmy’s older brother, Mike, and the library worker Mary DeSilva. Some mystery, however, surrounds the event and although everyone is pretty certain that Mike perished in the disaster, there is the possibility that he might, somehow, have escaped. His presence, at least, seems very much alive in the minds of his family.
Jimmy soon begins to suffer from fainting spells and his parents decide that it would be best if he took a semester off school to spend his time looking after his five-year-old brother, Petey. The decision is motivated as much by a need to find a suitable stand-in for Jimmy’s mother, Filomena, who has sunk into a debilitating depression, as it is for the teen’s own mental health.
Jimmy’s sudden drop into parental responsibility establishes the fundamental theme in Don’t Be Afraid: the accelerated pace of life and death in the late 20th century. Mike, for instance, is eager to grow up and be free and it is his determination to stake out his own space that ultimately leads to his death. He is a “Runaway Bunny” blown out of existence. As Jimmy’s parents struggle to cope with their terrible loss (one that can’t be rationalized by adult logic), it is left to the kids to step up. Jimmy is thrust into a rushed adulthood with the accompanying responsibilities. Throughout the novel, the Morrisons attempt to speed up their existence, racing through unpleasant or unwanted experiences. Jimmy’s sister, Vivian, for instance, cooks all their meals in a microwave. “Garlic Chicken Surprise” only takes 16 minutes, far less than it would in a conventional oven. Petey’s favourite meal is Eggo waffles, which can be made almost instantly in the toaster. Jimmy makes frequent reference to television sitcoms, such as Family Ties, in which serious problems are resolved (always happily) in less than half an hour. Jimmy pines for a moral clarity and quick fix that he has only ever encountered on television or Humphrey Bogart movies.
As with all good humour, Hayward’s style is direct and engaging. He writes Jimmy with an insightful adolescent deadpan that exposes the flaws and follies of the adult characters he observes. A daycare teacher, for instance, is said to have a “permanent stoop, probably from bending over so often to talk to the preschool kids, admiring this block tower or that finger painting, putting a Band-Aid on someone’s wounded finger.”
Jimmy is shot through with pain but working hard to stay numb, either by wolfing down doughnuts at a local shop or by running the past through his mind as if it were a movie he was assigned to review for English class. “After that I got depressed,” he tells us of his parents’ decision to keep him home from school and conscript him into babysitting duty. “If your idea of being depressed is not going to school and instead lying on your dead brother’s bed for eight to ten hours a day listening to your dead brother’s tapes on your dead brother’s Walkman. Refusing to change the tape or the batteries, even when the tape starts slowing all the way down, turning everything into the same blurry mess.”
Throughout the book, Jimmy is stuck between opposing forces. He watches his father, an engineer who believes in facts and science, and “the world as it really is” try to accept his son’s death by searching for the cause of the explosion. His mother, an ex-nun who left the order to marry Jimmy’s father, retreats into spiritual seclusion. She finally emerges, having decided to hold a birthday party for her deceased son. The plan is a religious reaction to the tragedy—a denial of the notion of physical death and an embrace of death as a different kind of birthday.
Jimmy also divides his time between those obsessed by the dead and those dedicated to fostering new life. His family joins a grief counselling group led by a former basketball player turned psychiatrist named Dr. Kasoff and it is here that Jimmy witnesses the many different ways adults cope with loss. As Petey’s de facto nanny, he also finds himself part of an informal mothers’ group. These women are defined by motherhood, but each holds on to a previous life before diapers and strollers.
Both groups can chart their existence back to a single catalytic event—a birth or a death. “As far as I can tell,” Jimmy says of the grief group, “the only thing our stories have in common is that it’s a beautiful day when it happens. It’s a warm afternoon in August, sunny and eighty, when the jet ski crashes into the rocks, breaking open the skull of a fourteen-year-old whose name was Bruce. It’s another perfect day when Campbell, the three-year-old girl on the tricycle, hits her head on the pavement which, nine times out of ten, is nothing to worry about. A beautiful day in an ordinary time. The sun is shining and the sky is blue. You can smell the grass, the snow is beginning to fall.”
That is powerful stuff. Plain, understated, gut wrenching. Throughout the book, Hayward manages to maintain the voice and perspective of a 17-year-old kid while finding the heightened poetry of the situation. Don’t Be Afraid is a daring novel that treats serious issues with a comic flare. It proves that often the best way to portray the darker aspects of our lives is with a light, humorous touch.
Andrew Clark writes the weekly “Road Sage” humour column for The Globe and Mail. He is the director of the Comedy: Writing and Performance program at Humber College.