November 27, 2013

Book: A Death in the Family by James Agee

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:45 pm

imagesThis book is supposed to be autobiographical in the sense of being about Agee’s own father’s death. However, this is a very slow and boring book. It describes the life of Jay Follet who leaves to meet his very sick father (Grampa Follet). He promises his wife Mary that he will be back  by nightfall, so that he could tuck his two children, Rufus and Caroline, to bed. Since the news came suddenly from his brother, he goes away at short notice, anxious to see his dad as soon as he can.


Mary gets a call next evening by a stranger that Jay has been in an accident and Andrew, Mary’s brother promises to go see. The stranger has not given detail of Andrew’s condition and so Mary waits in suspense, wondering why there was no detail and fearing the worst.


Aunt Hannah arrives to keep her company, and notices that Mary is on tenterhooks. Till Robert comes back with definite news, she does not know what happened to Jay. \


The story is populated by Mary’s parents, told from Jay’s family’s side and from his wife’s point of view. His own relations only appear indirectly, in conversations about or with them (on the phone) by Mary or one of her people. Since the title gives the whole thing away, I can safely tell you that Jay dies in the accident, as Andrew finds out. The person who called did not want to give the bad news on the phone and tells Andrew gently when he arrives.


Rufus is being made fun of on a regular basis by other boys and tries to use his newfound “status” as the son of the dead man to gain respect and sympathy from strangers.


The book seems random with sudden time shifts to Jay’s childhood that made no sense. Then I learnt that James Agee died before publication of this book and there were seemingly unrelated chapters which the publishers put in an order they thought was relevant and reading the book. In an already slow story, with this also thrown in,  you find that it jars a lot.

And on top of that, the whole story is one of just talks and feelings after the death with nothing much happening in the first place. These random chapters are even more inane, describing in fifteen pages how everyone waters the lawns. Or, do you want to know about how they watched clouds? Sure, there is a painfully detailed description, about 12 pages of it.


I may have mentioned already that the story is excruciatingly slow! It really tries to portray how a young boy faces the news with total disconnect. Instead, it comes out like a diary of jumbled and pointless events and trivia noted down in a diary after a tragic event that affects all of them.

Add in Mary’s total and too-intense devotion to religion (one of the sore points between Jay and her as Jay is a Protestant and not as religious) and even Mary’s father’s skepticism bordering on agnosticism (one of the very few interesting things in the book – this conflict) and you get the full picture.

It requires a great amount of patience to go through. The story goes on and on in the same vein, covering in total absence of any urgency or even drama, events like the body being brought home, the arrival of the priest, the posthumous baptism, the prayers, the burial, the incomprehension of the two kids – my god, watching a plant grow is more exciting than this!


I cannot in good conscience give it more than 2/ 10


–        – Krishna


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