An Unexpected Afterlife Journey: “Melton and the Hereafter” Reviewed

Melton and the Hereafter

Damian Gutierrez Barnes’ Melton and the Hereafter is a novel that explores the afterlife through the eyes of a man who never fully reckoned with his trauma as a victim of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. As we move deeper into contemporary discourse acknowledging the ubiquity of masculine fragility, and the blind rage that stifles spirituality with abuse of power, a novel like this one serves as a frank examination of the conditions that keep patriarchal norms in place. Melton and the Hereafter is a hopeful tale about reconciliation where it matters most; at the heart of universal consciousness. 

Melton is revealed to us through vignettes that move compellingly through the timescape of his life. The novel is underway at the point of Melton’s death in old age, and we are invited into a cosmic realm that is textured with glowing synapses and marine creatures; the spontaneous post-mortem fireworks of the mind. It’s a viable time to write about death, as we continue our odyssey through health crises, and yet, refreshingly, Barnes writes about the psychedelic voyage of death with emphasis on the earth itself, and on our relationship with creation. 

I love a book with a map. Barnes provides a detailed map of Sue-Meg State Park, the site of Melton’s afterlife roaming. It is comforting to consider that each of us could be delivered to our favorite place after death. I think of Gray Whale Cove, a beach in Pacifica that is wholly mediocre compared to the endless California coastline vistas, but which has always been special to me, a child of the Caribbean, for being one of the first places where I beheld the power of the Pacific. Barnes absolutely ravishes the reader with florid descriptions of west coast vegetation, geologic history and ocean life. His meticulous prose is characterized by a kind of aesthetic practicality; Sue-Meg State Park is, aside from Melton’s revered site of family memories and display of life’s unselfconscious proliferation, home to the Yurok Tribe of Northern California. Kinship with and reverence for creation cannot sincerely exist in our community without acknowledgement of the cultural erasure that the U.S. state park system has enacted over the past century and a half. Indeed, the romanticizing of the state park system effectively distracts even the most ardently progressive hiker from the fact: the land is not just historically attributed to a displaced community, it is a contemporary theft. The harm is now. Barnes is thorough and nuanced in his representation of the simultaneities of Melton’s life; this park was known to the main character as Patrick’s Point State Park, it held personal meaning for his family, and still it holds meaning for generations of Yurok families, and, beyond this, is a particulate rendering of the mysterious, ancient planet we live on. 

Reconciliation is the framework for this novel; reckoning with our relationship with the earth, with one another, and with ourselves. The threads of Melton’s family history run parallel with the emerald grasses that expand toward the sea at Sue-Meg State Park. In the descriptions of 20th century family dynamics, Barnes crafts a powerful rendering of how patriarchy is enshrined in the filial ecosystem and then replicated, like the ambivalent DNA of thimbleberry bramble or the chance prisms of agate stones, for generations to follow. For most readers, there is a painful resonance here; most of us have known something of the violence of patriarchy, most of us can say that Melton’s own conditioning, however specific to his life, recalls a disconcerting early memory of our own. What forests of time have we each found ourselves in as a result? Barnes gently posits that we are as susceptible to systemic psychological cycles as rocks are to barnacles. The toughness of this existential realization is, I believe, heightened when the novel gives us peripheral, grieved views into Melton’s trauma and the absence of advocacy that ultimately ossifies Melton’s personality in life. 

The novel unravels, like a path to a clearing, into hope and compassion, and this is a welcome respite from the doom scroll upside down we’ve been rollicking in. bell hooks asserts in The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity and Love, “To indoctrinate boys into the rules of patriarchy, we force them to feel pain and to deny their feelings.” Barnes gives Melton, as Austen gave her female protagonists, a place on the page to process and acknowledge what the cishet world would not allow them to. Melton’s afterlife voyage through memory, time, and nature, concludes in a place of restorative and empowering queer love. hooks reminds us that “To end patriarchy we must challenge both its psychological and its concrete manifestations in daily life.” Melton and the Hereafter is a fortifying embrace that gives the reader hope that perhaps, despite it all, we still can. 


Melton and the Hereafter
by Damian Gutierrez Barnes

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