Friday, June 1, 2012

Books for Writers: "Funeral Makers" fakes you out

          Doug Limon, the movie director who made The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, is making a film version of The Funeral Makers, working from a screenplay written by the book's author, Cathie Pelletier. That's the “Recent Film and Book News” from, a website Pelletier keeps up for one of her pen names.
I wish Pelletier lots of luck and residuals but will likely never see the film. Reason one is that filmmakers never do a good job on Maine (or Boston) accents, and their attempts make me groan loudly. Reason two is my belief that a film, even one authored by Pelletier herself, will not do The Funeral Makers justice.

The Funeral Makers, as I told my wife when I finally closed it and set it on the arm of the couch, is a nearly perfect book. Pelletier has a knack for taking her readers from the sublimely ridiculous to the beautifully tragic in the space of a few pages.  She slaps you in the face and then slides a slow, subtle needle into your head. One minute she can have you chuckling at the naiveté of a 14-year-old in love with an older man, the next she can have you in near tears (well, not hard-hearted manly men like myself) when she reminds you puppy love is still love and even the death of a wastrel leaves a big hole.
Coincidentally, I read The Funeral Makers (set in 1959) the same week I was introducing my creative-writing classes to the Beat Generation, courtesy of Allen Ginsberg's Howl. While Allen's friends were starving themselves in tenement flats and “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn,” their parents were apparently in Mattagash, wondering where their youth went and where they left their dreams. The best minds of their generation were marrying for security, getting trapped in loveless relationships, pining for romantic con artists and looking for whatever grace remains. Pelletier's characters start the book as stereotype but gain gravitas with every page. At the beginning of the book you laugh at them but by the end you ache.
Pelletier does a good job of getting out of her story's way. She rarely explains her characters' actions but reveals their motivations later in the book. Ed Lawler appears to the reader to be a drunken lout on page 61, when he mocks planning for his sister in-law's funeral:
“Why don't you stick a sprig of parsley behind her ear?” Ed had gotten a cold beer from the refrigerator and, as he opened it, he stretched his legs out until his feet rested on Sicily's inflated hassock that was clear plastic and had artificial flowers growing out of fake grass. There had been an argument that morning with Sicily about just that sort of thing. (The Funeral Makers, page 61)

Later, Pelletier shows you why Ed acts like a jerk.
That was the year Ed Lawler gave up, stopped beating his head against the stone minds of Mattagash, threw the gauntlet back into the heap of rubbish and turned his back on it.
“Some of us go to our graves with our dreams,” he thought, unable even to remember what his had been. (The Funeral Makers, page 210)

She works similar medicine with the entire story, revealing more and more with each chapter. The Funeral Makers is not, as you might assume in the first half of the book, about a family preparing for the death of one of its own; it's about the lives we destroy every day, usually not even noticing it. There's a lot of that going on in small towns, where people can live their entire lives hating their next-door neighbors, keeping secrets and suffocating slowly.
One note about dialog mechanics: Pelletier does kind of a strange thing with her attributives, reversing the usual subject-predicate order. For example: “She does wiggle more than her share,” said Winnie. (The Funeral Makers, page 95.) Usually, I only see this when a dependent clause comes after the attributive, as in “She does wiggle more than her share,” said Winnie, who'd seen a lot of wiggling in her time. Pelletier uses predicate-subject in those cases, and often uses the subject-predicate, too. Still, she uses predicate-subject sans clause enough to be noticeable, and I'm not sure why.

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