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”.