February, the second month of the year and time for some second helpings from authors who made an impression first time around. Not sure that the two books have much in common but, at least, the authors share a first name and the titles rhyme.
Michael Kimball’s Dear Everybody is perhaps the saddest book I”ve ever read. So when Bloomsbury published Big Ray towards the end of last year, I knew it wouldn’t wait long in the TBR. Big Ray dies alone in his apartment and his corpse found after an unspecified number of days. His son who had a difficult relationship with his father tries to come to terms with what has happened and to explain his very mixed feelings.
For most of my life, I have been afraid of my father. After he died, I was afraid to be a person without a father, but I also felt relieved he was dead. everything about my father was complicated like that.
The story is told in very short episodes. Depending on your outlook, this can be a plus or a minus. I found this structure diluted the impact – it didn’t allow me the overwhelming emotional involvement I had experienced with Dear Everybody. Other readers, however, may be glad of the breathing space that this structure allows because Big Ray is a giant of a man, a tyrant and at times a brute and you can guess where parts of this story lead. However, underneath the surface is the story of his son and his daughter and their resilient struggle not to be destroyed by their father’s behaviour.
…. I told her. I ignored all that. That was an easy answer, but it felt like it allowed me to be a different person than the one who those things happened to. … And I really wanted to like my father …
These emotional struggles, the poignant undercurrents, that make this story both brutal and tender.
Mike French’s Blue Friday is similarly contradictory. The comedic promise of the men in black cover and a state which values family time so much that overtime for married couples is banned soon turns sinister. The Family Protection Agency is a special division that enforces legislation brought in to protect the family unit: no overtime, enforced viewing of family televison, amd marriage to a state-assigned partner if still single on reaching the age of 25. This is hell on earth to some. Cue the rise of the Overtime Underground Network.
The year is 2034 and the fight is on. It soon becomes apparent that this seemingly benign state is anything but. Methods of detection and evasion are suitably futuristic and Trent, leader of the Overtime Underground Network, has a more meaningful relationship with his computer than with his girlfriend, Keturah. The men in black are brainless thugs, state enforcement agents, one of whom has a more meaningful relationship with his pet rat than with his state-assigned bride. If the state oversteps the mark with its enforcement methods, Trent oversteps it with his resistance methods.
It’s not possible to take sides because both sides are in the wrong. That’s politics for you and this is a clever, amusing and thought-provoking satire.
It is also occasionally baffling – there is an hallucinogenic middle section that refers back to French’s first novel The Ascent of Isaac Steward, a work that was far too surreal for me. I mention it only for those who come first to Blue Friday, the second in the trilogy but entirely different in scope and tone, and who might wonder what in the blazes has hit them. Just keep calm and carry on. Without this rather unfathomable section, the ending would be unfathomable too.