Like the tone of my favorite guitarists, some authors possess voices I immediately recognize. Brandon Hobson belongs to that list. Gloom, bizarre events, and beautiful-yet-unpretentious writing are the translucent shellac covering of a style that hides a raw, beating heart full of longing at it’s center. In Where the Dead Sit Talking, Hobson is once again in fine form, delivering a lyrical, somewhat brutal, and very touching coming of age story set in rural Oklahoma in the late 1980s.
Sequoyah is a fifteen-year-old Cherokee boy whose mother is sent to jail. Not having a father, Sequoyah is placed in foster care with the Troutt family, where he shares a house with the couple, Agnes and Harold, and two other children like him, Rosemary and George. Sequoya is adaptable, but reserved. He has been scarred by his mother’s years of substance abuse, and those scars are in his soul as well as all over his face. As a result, the youngster, keeps mostly to himself and observes everything while quietly walking in the woods, repressing his feelings, wondering about his mother, and enjoying a few furtive cigarettes. This changes a bit when he starts talking to Rosemary, who also comes from a Native American background and shares with him a tumultuous past inside the foster care system. As Sequoyah’s feelings toward Rosemary grow in unexpected and strange ways, their past traumas threaten to obliterate the bit of calm they have been able to find at the Troutts’ home.
The first thing that needs to be discussed in any review of Hobson’s work is the writing itself. Sure, this novel, like all his previous work, is full of nuanced, fully developed characters and packed with good dialogue and superb descriptions, but the writing is what brings all of it together. At once elegant and straightforward, poetic and cold in a way that approximates noir, Hobson’s writing in Where the Dead Sit Talking constantly occupies the traumas of the past, the present, and a place that belongs inside Sequoyah’s brain:
From the window, I watched the drizzle come down in the yellow glow from the house light. Time passed, thoughts came. I couldn’t think of what to say to Rosemary. Minutes crept by. I heard Rosemary’s voice in my head, instructing me to breathe slowly. Her voice came and went. Her voice was there. I heard her say my name and I wondered whether we were communicating on some higher level of consciousness. Maybe she was awake in her room, I remember thinking this, and we were talking through each others minds, each other’s thoughts, if such a thing where possible. Of course this was insanity. But of course it wasn’t insanity. I marveled at the thought as I lay in the dark, my breathing steady, silent.
There are portions of the narrative where the coming of age aesthetic takes over for a few pages. In others, secrets that aren’t secret threaten to destabilize the home even further. Just like those, there are also passages in which the past is an inescapable fiend that wants to destroy anything good in the present. Then there is the touch of sadness that permeates everything, the need to be alone, and even a sprinkling of mental health issues with roots in past suffering and filtered through survival. Ultimately, the sum of all these produces a dynamic novel that constantly changes pace and form while retaining its bleak, cold, somewhat broken atmosphere.
Hobson treats his characters with kindness and respect, but not everyone in their lives has done the same. Everyone is broken in a very human way. Everyone is flawed in a very human way. Despite this, there are good hearts throughout the novel. There are tiny things that appear as heroic movies and kind words that mean the world. Unfortunately, sometimes none of that is enough, and the last part of the novel contains the result of that: a devastating blow to everyone involved that Hobson somehow simultaneously uses to communicate two things: that sometimes all the help is not enough and going on is impossible, and that carrying on is always worth it and even the worst present will one day be a distant past.
Where the Dead Sit Talking is a beautifully written novel that moves at its own pace and stops once in a while to make sure you’re seeing what’s being shown to you before moving on to something worse, or something infinitely better…or sometimes an interstitial space where you have to remind yourself to be careful and not hope for much because life likes to hit you the hardest when you’re busy daydreaming about great things. Yes, it’s a tad depressing, like real life, but it’s also a wonderful novel about the places where we direct our love and the selfless way ordinary people can be like saving angels for those in need. Regardless of which of those things appeal to you the most, one thing is guaranteed: no one will walk away from this narrative untouched.
Where the Dead Sit Talking
by Brandon Hobson
Soho Press; 288 p.