Chapter 7: “A Death in the Family” by James Agee (1958)

“And God knows he was lucky, so many ways, and God knows he was thankful. Everything was good and better than he could have hoped for, better than he ever deserved; only, whatever it was and however good it was, it wasn’t what you once had been, and had lost, and could never have again, and once in a while, once in a long time, you remembered, and knew how far you were away, and it hit you hard enough, that little while it lasted, to break your heart.”

It’s funny how life (and death) works. After finishing The Bridge of San Luis Rey last Monday or Tuesday, I had already decided that I was going to read James Agee’s 1958 Pulitzer-winning novel, A Death In the Family. Within a day of making my decision, I learned of a death in my own family—a bizarre, tragic coincidence that made the story of my Pulitzer journey all the more life-defining. It’s as though my life truly is becoming one of the many stories Joshua and I are reading along this journey—or at least an eerie facsimile thereof.

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I just finished A Death In the Family about ten minutes ago; despite its paltry 318 pages and surprisingly quick pacing, the novel took me a little more than a week to finish because I had to keep putting it down. Not surprisingly, with the recent goings on in my own family being as they have been, the novel hit pretty close to home. Of course it didn’t help any that Agee was an incredibly gifted writer and that A Death In the Family is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever had the good pleasure to read. I felt the book was honest and genuine, completely and totally accurate in its portrayal of people facing the bewilderment, anger, and sadness that accompanies the death of a close relative, and the ultimate bonding, the coming together as a family, that results from that death.

Unless, of course, it’s my family.

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One theme running through the book, and through the veins of its protagonist family (whom I, don’t believe, Agee supplies the reader the name of), especially resonated with me, as it is a theme that has run its course through my family’s story as well—alcoholism. Two years ago, I considered myself very nearly an alcoholic—I was working a dead-end job that was sucking the life out of me, I had quit going to church and cut off my ties to just about all of my friends, I was angry and bitter, pissed off at God for His (I perceived) wrongs against me, and I coped with all of this sadness by drinking. I would get pretty heavily drunk when I went out with the friends I kept around, but more often than not, most typical nights would find me on my couch, watching reruns of my favorite television shows until the wee early hours of the morning with nothing to keep me company except my favorite spirits, Guinness and Jameson. Now, this phase of my life only lasted for a year—a mere fraction of the time most alcoholics spend dealing with their addictions—but I remember that one year being one of the most painful years of my life.

Alcoholism is a burden my entire family has been carrying for the last 50+ years.

My father also went through a nasty bout with alcoholism, all of his brothers, to any certain extent, had their own battles with alcoholism, his mother’s life was ended prematurely due to her alcoholism, his father dealt with alcoholism, and his grandfather dealt with alcoholism. On the other side of my family, my mother was an alcoholic for ten years, she was married to an abusive alcoholic (Paul, a stepfather I have written about before), both of her uncles (one of them being my late Uncle Jerry) were/are alcoholics. With a track record like that, it’s a wonder I hadn’t dealt with my own thirsts earlier than I did, or for a longer amount of time than I did. With the weight of statistics and genetics bearing down on me, I know I have only God to thank for delivering me from such a lifestyle. As I said to my dear friend, Catherine, last night, “I am truly amazed by the life-altering properties God possesses.”

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Similar to my own family, the family that Agee chronicles in this novel also dealt with the curse of alcoholism. Dissimilar to my family, however, their alcoholism wasn’t a quiet, sneaking thing that everyone refused to acknowledge—everyone was well aware of the demons that each character wasn’t necessarily battling, but actually, to a certain extent, embracing. There are several confounding scenes in the book in which one character or another will start drinking to deal with stress or trauma, and another character, instead of telling the other the stop, that drinking is no way to cope, will actually coach the other! Instead of warning the other of the consequences of alcoholism, will teach and instruct how to properly drink!

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The other connection I made with this book, of course, rests with its title—as aforementioned, while reading about this family’s way of dealing with a death in their family, my family and I were also figuring out a way to deal with a death in our family.

A couple weeks ago, as I have already written about, my uncle, Jerry, passed away. Now, when Jay died, in this novel, his family came together; they united to comfort each other. My family, on the other hand, divided for, what I believe will be, the final time. The night before the funeral, my grandfather called my mother and told her, “You and your husband can come. But if the kids come, there’s going to be some… static.” Static…? “Yes. If they come, it will make some of the family uncomfortable.” Some of the family…? Like who? “Family… Members.”

And, so, my mother decided, once again, that she would have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of our family. She then decided to upstage our family at the cemetery by showing up there first, with an extravagant bouquet of flowers that was sure to be more showy and extravagant than those of anyone else who would be attending, then told other family members who had already gathered about the entire saga. Her aim was not just to ensure the division that had already occurred between us and the family, but to create divisions amongst everyone else in the family.

I can’t decide whose evil is worse.

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