Don’t Be Afraid, by Steven Hayward

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

The year is 1988, the setting a suburb just outside Cleveland, Ohio in mid-West America. The narrator is 17-year-old James Fortitude Morrison. Yes, everyone thinks he was named after The Doors singer, but the name is a tradition for males in his family, including father and grandfather — his dad is proud to have long been known as “Fort Morrison”, particularly in his hockey-playing days. In the opening sequence, we are told that Jim’s brother Mike has died in an explosion at the local library where the two worked part-time in the basement audio-visual section, tending (and viewing) films:

Mike and I — along with our younger sister, Vivian — had jobs at the public library because of our mother, who ran the reference desk. She was the one who did the hiring, and she hired us. Whether or not we wanted to work there was beside the point.

If you’d ever been to Cleveland Heights — before the explosion, that is — you’d probably remember seeing the library. Cleveland Heights is just east of Cleveland itself, one of the first places where people moved when the city began to go broke in the 1960s, around the time the Cuyahoga River caught fire. According to my father the city ran a campaign that was supposed to make people want to move here. They put up signs and handed out T-shirts, even had a bunch of coffee cups made, all of which had printed on them the same incredibly lame slogan in bright green letters: “Cleveland Heights, a nicer place to live.”

In Steven Hayward’s Don’t Be Afraid, what you see is what you get. The narrative tone and cadence of those paragraphs will continue throughout the novel. The action never leaves Cleveland Heights (“a suburb like any other, an ordinary nowhere”); indeed, an underlying strength of the novel is its portrayal of the isolation of suburban middle America in the 1980s from what was happening in the bigger world. This ordinariness, however, is offset by the power of the absurd, the library explosion that has killed the narrator’s brother, one year older but the two were close enough to often be seen as non-identical twins. And all of this is told through the eyes of a confused 17-year-old (who is subject to fainting when anxiety arrives), trying to figure out the back story to what happened.

Steven Hayward was born and raised in Toronto; while he has lived and taught in Cleveland, he brings a Canadian eye and background to his portrayal of life in the mid-West United States. This novel shares many characteristics with his first, The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke. While that one is set in 1930s Toronto, it too features a 17-year-old narrator, a study of an “ordinary” city with disturbing undertones (anti-Semitic clashes and an uprising of exploited garment workers) and an off-the-wall defining event, in that case “the most infamous baseball game in Canadian history, the riot at Christie Pits”.

The technique has both advantages and problems. A maturing teen sees his family and community through eyes that have a high level of understanding, but he is still on an upward learning curve. It opens the door for Hayward to make frequent detours into the contrast between generations and their markers and influences:

What my mother calls me is James James or J.J. because it reminds her of a poem she read to us when we were kids by the same guy who wrote those Winnie-the-Pooh books. Up until the day she found out about the existence of the dead rock star Jim Morrison — this happened because she saw Mike with a copy of No One Here Gets Out Alive, the biography of Jim Morrison and the Doors — she was under the mistaken impression that it was the kid in the poem, a good boy, who other people though of first when I told them my name was Jim Morrison.

Just in case you didn’t encounter A.A. Milne’s poem in your childhood it opens “James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George DuPre/Took care of his mother though he was only three.” Jimmy the narrator’s father is an investigator who acquires data to support insurance claim suits — combined with the librarian mother, that too gives the author material for exploring the conflicting reference points of the generations of the time.

Hayward also adds to those opportunities by having Jimmy take a year off school to deal with his grief, a year that he spends pretty much as “nanny” to his four-year-old brother, Petey, when he isn’t wondering about his older brother. That chore introduces us to the Mothers whom he runs into daily both dropping off and picking up his brother at his pre-school — the author has some fun with that little sub-society.

Like the narrator, Mike’s mother is having trouble coming to grips with his death and that story line is played out on two fronts. The entire family has been enrolled in a grief-therapy group, introducing us to some others who are having trouble coping. More important, however, she in her confusions instigates this novel’s version of the infamous baseball game in Lucio Burke, a birthday party for the departed Mike.

The problem, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is that while the digressions have their moments (and many do) the main story line is too flimsy to bear the weight of all the distractions happening around it. Jimmy just simply isn’t interesting or puzzling enough to keep the reader involved; the rest of the cast are reduced to supporting characters, either of his search or of the riffs that Hayward wants to play with his observations of the era (there are a lot of movie references for those who like that kind of thing).

The result is a novel that I was happy to see end, not because I didn’t enjoy it along the way but because I had realized many pages before the conclusion that it was not going anywhere other than where it was. There are moments and incidents that I am sure will come back in memory over time (the author’s laconic style is well-suited to those kind of side trips) but the overall memory is going to be “that book about what happened after the library exploded”.

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10 Responses to “Don’t Be Afraid, by Steven Hayward”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    What made you pick this one up Kevin?

    It sounds like a book that will strike a chord with some readers and that will have its fans, but that for many others will just be what it is (not going anywhere other than where it was as you nicely put it).

    I didn’t know that poem, so thanks for that. Is it credible though that in 1988 in the US someone wouldn’t have heard of Jim Morrison? It never came up earlier? It’s a small point, but like other notes it sounds unconvincing.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I picked this up because I quite appreciated Hayward’s Lucio Burke novel. It wasn’t perfect but captured an aspect of Depression-era Toronto (both racial and economic tensions) and leveraged the Christie Pits’ riot (it was an historical event) quite effectively.

    In some ways, this novel may be just as successful at capturing Cleveland Heights, the problem being that Cleveland Heights in 1988 is not very interesting. As for not knowing Jim Morrison, I didn’t find that a problem — it is definitely a stretch but I figured Hayward used it to illustrate the mother’s isolation from the real world more than anything else. And middle America’s isolation from whatever was happening in the rest of the world is part of his point.

    Hayward’s moved on and is teaching in Colorado Springs right now. A part of me hopes that he attempts a Colorado Springs in the twenty-first century novel — a lot of America’s current tensions are played out in that city, which also happens to be both beautiful and interesting.

    This book seems to be typical of what I have been running into recently — works that are just fine to read, but there is not much to say about them once I’ve finished.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Lucio Burke did sound more interesting. The problem may as you indicate simply be that it’s hard to write about a place where nothing much happens without risking nothing much happening in the writing. It can be done, but it’s far from easy.

    I sympathise on your recent run. For different reasons I’m facing the same with Toibin’s Brookyln which I just finished. I really enjoyed it, but what I enjoyed above all was the smoothness of the prose and the sheer quality of the crafsmanship. There’s stuff to say about it, but in a way not that much and you and others have already said it (you certainly covered the key element of everyone in the book with about one exception being basically nice).

  4. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Max and Kevin:
    i recently encountered someone who thought that the Lenin who is entombed in Red Square is John Lennon, so the Jim Morrisson angle is credible to me, sadly.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That does rather put it in perspective.

    I’d have felt like crying if I were in that conversation.

    Surreal image though. All those Russians queing up to pay homage to one fourth of The Beatles.

  6. dovegreyreader Says:

    Sheila, that made me chuckle! Laura and I spent a happy morning in Pere Lachaise on a pilgrimage to find Jim thinking it would take us hours…of course no such trouble, the whole place is graffitied with arrows ‘Jim this way.’
    Kevin, can I say this sounds a like a book to miss? I get the feeling some good story line opportunities that might have been of interest to me haven’t been fleshed out enough to hold reader attention? Or to be interesting enough?
    Though I do love the reference to James James Morrison Morrison, Wetherby George Dupre, that really was a childhood favourite and has me back in Green Class with Miss Glasscock:-) Thank heavens we were only 6, what would we have made of that name had we been a bit older!

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max, DGR: I think Sheila’s comment captures the essence of the book — incomplete experience (hardly a genre) seems to be what the author is developing. It is an interesting strain, but not enough to turn the reading experience into a great book.

    I would underline, however, that Hayward does make some worthwhile observations along the way. He has talent and I will read his next book, but this one does fall shy of the mark for me.

  8. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    DGR – I do hope poor Miss Glasscock married someone at the first opportunity, and changed her name forthwith!

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Just because we are older now does not mean that we can mock the names of our former teachers.

  10. susanonthesoapbox Says:

    We used to live on Woodcock Road in a small town in Pennsylvania before we moved back to Calgary. We’ve heard that the young couple down the street are petitioning to have the name of the road changed because their children were being teased about it at school. I think mocking builds character.

    Oh dear, this series of comments is really degenerating, isn’t it.

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