June 16, 2014

He Ain't Heavy: a review of Tom Piccirilli's "All You Despise"

All You Despise
by Tom Piccirilli
Crossroad Press (2010)
58 pages

"Take care of your brother."

Those are the words pounding a drum beat in the narrator's skull when he wakes up in his trailer one night to find his drunken brother passed out on his couch and the grill of their dead father's Mustang is spattered with blood.

Family is a funny thing like that. Reason tends to get pushed aside when push comes to shove, and Tom Piccirilli paints a portrait with this novella of two brothers and the reckoning that is due to come, one way or the other. The title of the story comes from a line near the middle of the darkly tinged family drama: "I thought, all you despise, I cherish." The brothers seem diametrically opposed in multiple ways, not the least of which is that the narrator's life is in shambles following the death of his wife, with bills and the like taking him out of his home and deposited in a trailer park he feared as a child, as well as forced to sell the almost mythic Mustang that rotted away in his late father's garage until he restored it himself. On the other side of this coin is his brother, Danny, who has the wife, the kid, the white picket fence, and even bought back the Mustang. Kind of like an unofficial passing of the torch between the two.

Danny is not a happy man either, though. And when the narrator--he's never named outright, so I don't know what else to call him--finds out that an old man was killed in a hit-and-run the night before, he has a choice to make in that instance. Follow his conscience or take care of his brother.

In fifty-some pages, Piccirilli manages to shoehorn an small epic into this book. I could have spent a full-length novel marveling out how beautifully he depicted a broken and bruised family dynamic, but a quick, shotgun blast of a novella will have to do. For as much as there is to admire in what Piccirilli displays through his writing, there's the stuff left unsaid by the narrator, only alluded to, that offers a great counterweight to the story. Maybe that's what I want from a longer story, all that stuff laid bare, but maybe some of the magic from this story would be lost doing that. So, better left as is, I suppose. And that's alright by me.

It's not a happy story, I'll tell you that right now. If you want redemption, you might be disappointed, because the lines that the narrator sees ahead of him that need to be crossed are not the kind that are liable to leave a reader feeling more than a heartfelt sadness for where these two brothers have ended up. Bah, happy endings are over-rated, anyway. The journey is the thing, and the darkness wandered through in All You Despise is its own reward, because at least you can thank whatever god you believe in that you're not part of this family.

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