By Brandon Hobson
Reviewed by Gabino Iglesias
Calamari Press, forthcoming March 1st, 2014
120 pp., $14. Print.
“I left Chicago and returned to Dallas when my mother tried to overdose.”
With that line, author Brandon Hobson sets the mood for the rest of his upcoming novel from Calamari Press, Deep Ellum. Lean, fast-paced, and truly engrossing, Deep Ellum is a multilayered narrative that offers an unflinching look at a disconnected family, studies the thoughts and feelings of a young man with no plans and few options, and pays a strange homage to the city of Dallas.
Gideon is etching out a living in Chicago when he learns that his mother tried to kill herself. He travels back to Dallas to spend time with her, but he steps back into a family who can’t communicate, a mother who has spent a lifetime suffering from a crippling depression, a group of deeply flawed individuals who seem to be moving in different directions, and a city full of ghosts, sad stories, and ice. Gideon stays with his sister Meg, and her problems with addiction and dating the wrong men soon become part of Gideon’s day-to-day life. Between alcohol, pills, parties, visiting mom, wishing to return to Chicago, trying to find a job, and dealing with the past, Gideon is caught in a state of inactive restlessness, and there seems to be no immediate way out.
Hobson is a very talented writer, and his prose is capable of making dark things shine. Deep Ellum resembles a noir from the start, but it quickly spirals down into something darker on many unexpected levels. The fact that his mother never hugs Gideon is sad but easy to understand. However, the fact that he and Meg have had an incestuous relationship going for more than decade is much harder to deal with. Luckily, instead of turning this into a crucial point in the narrative, Hobson simply introduces it and moves on. When mixed with other elements such as traumatic recollections, vivid dreams, and bizarre encounters with neighbors, the result is a novel that’s simultaneously very real and otherworldly.
Blending elements of magical realism and crime with a literary flair, Deep Ellum presents family, pain, and places through a unique filter. Dallas is celebrated and scrutinized, presented as the place where the past lives and where the present is covered in snow and ice, frozen but moving, alive but derelict.
“The last time I was in Deep Ellum there were people all around, but the weather was better then. I made my way down the block, down Malcolm X Boulevard in the cold wind, the same block I had walked down a year earlier, before I left for Chicago. I could imagine myself walking like this for a long time. All around me was narrowness and shadows, brick buildings, the street. The air was heavy and dead. But this was the function of Middle American cities in winter. Rank smells, empty streets, narrow alleys and shadows. A woman standing in front of a sushi restaurant told me where the closest liquor store was. It wasn’t too far, a few blocks away. I crossed Main and walked down a dark street until I found it. The guy working at the liquor store had a cat with him. The cat was silent, sleeking around my legs. A man watching me whispered something to the woman with him. I picked up the cat and let it curl against my chest. The couple watched me but I ignored them. I bought a bottle of vodka and headed back to Meg’s place.”
Deep Ellum is a story about stories. Besides bringing together past, present, and future, Hobson manages to fill his narrative with tales that have nothing to do with the main narrative but somehow add depth and texture to it. Gideon and his family provide most of the anecdotes/memories/dreams, but the novel’s richness truly lies in the plethora of peripheral narratives that come from disposable characters. Neighbors, people on the streets, and childhood friends all come into the story, add a tasty morsel, and disappear. These are chunks of conversation overheard at a bar:
“You ever lash out at some jerkoff who’s taking forever at the urinal?
He has a drifting eye. It’s fucked. The eye practically hops. You’re not sure which eye to look at when he’s talking to you.
Narwhals hide behind dumpsters in Paseo.
When Phillip isn’t doing homework or writing his science fiction novel, he spends nights playing chess online against a serial killer in prison.”
Deep Ellum is touching, sharp, and entertaining. More importantly, it keeps you on your toes. Every time you start feeling like you have a solid grasp on things, Hobson knocks you out with weirdness. It can be a kid on a wheelchair making strange noises, a drug that makes people see narwhals on the street, or a newscast reporting that a boy born with flippers has smiled for the first time. The point is that you will never get too comfortable with the story because something new is always coming your way.
From heartbreak to addiction, incest to hope, Hobson accomplishes a lot in 120 pages, making Deep Ellum a novel that deserves to be read.