Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Books for Writers: "The Suburbs of Heaven"

                I fell right into the world Merle Drown created in The Suburbs of Heaven; two dozen years ago I might have lived there myself. In the book, published in 200o, Drown writes about blue-collar, semi-rural New Hampshire, a place I feel I know well. True, my own upbringing took place in blue-collar, semi-rural Maine, but my real-life folk and Drown’s creations are all Yankees under the skin. Yankees are hardy folks, and we do what we need to put food on the table, gas in our trucks, and women in our beds.
Suburbs covers a thin slice of the life story of the Hutchins clan. They’re poor but proud, and hard-working, but not unwilling to lie, cheat, steal or dance naked to make a buck. In Drown’s world, jobs are hard to get and hard to keep, the local-boy-made good doesn’t see the barriers money creates, and someone keeps stealing the townswomen’s panties.
Family patriarch Jim Hutchins is not an educated man, but he’s far from stupid. He’s not lazy, but he’s far from ambitious. He wonders if he’ll ever recover from the death of his youngest child, a daughter, but misses that the rest of his family is suffering, too. He loves his wife while realizing she’s flawed. He’s protective of his children but refuses to coddle them the way his wife, Pauline, does. In short, he’s a fully realized character. He breathes. He sweats. He bleeds.
Drown gives similar due to the majority of the characters in Suburbs, which is why it's so easy to identify with each of them. All of Drown's creations are wounded and most of them are using the folks around them as Band-Aids, just like many of the people in readers’ lives.
Much of the book takes place through Jim’s eyes, but Drown allows us to sample it through other characters’ perspectives as well. He uses simple but effective devices to help readers tell them apart and keep the characters’ voices loud and clear. Jim, for example, has the strongest accent and Drown effectively and sparingly uses patois to establish him. Jim isn’t afraid to say “ain’t” for example, nor is he reluctant to employ his native gift for simile:  “'Seems like you’re peeing down your pant leg just to keep your feet warm',” Jim tells the local cop, who is looking to maintain his rep  (The Suburbs of Heaven, page 153). “I need to leave work about like I need another itch to scratch,” Jim muses to himself  (The Suburbs of Heaven, page 67) By contrast, even in his inner monologues, Jim’s schizophrenic son, Gregory, says it straight: “I give Dog his food. I save a little in the can for myself because I’m only a little hungry. You don’t have to heat Alpo, which makes it handy. Just spoon some into his dish, then use the same spoon to feed your own face. I’ve learned a lot since I’ve lived on my own, stuff you don’t learn looking in books” (The Suburbs of Heaven, page 36.) Jim’s son Tommy sounds a lot like his old man, which is probably why they don’t get along so well.
While reading, I focused on Drown's use of perspective and character voice because my W.I.P. is written, largely, from three first-person perspectives. The characters are all of similar age and background – two teen girls and a teenage boy – and in early days I struggled to make them sound distinct. I'm still not sure I've got it. Like Drown, I've tried to set them apart by speech patterns, both in dialogue and inner monologue. One girl tends to swear more than the other. The boy is a bookworm so he tends to use better English. Beta readers have been encouraging, as was my last MFA mentor, but it's still on my mind.  Merle’s a master, and I hope I can come close.


  1. The Suburbs of Heaven is brilliant. Read it twice and will probably do so again. Reviewed it here:

    Excellent post, brother.

    1. It's on my read-over list, too. I found a proof copy in a bookstore in Vermont and got Merle to sign it. Pretty priceless, if you ask me. Enjoyed your review, Charlie.