Nathan, Patrick. “Some Hell”, Graywolf Press, 2016.
Coming-of-age is never really easy and when combined with a parent’s suicide it is all the more difficult. Colin’s family is dissolving in the aftermath of his father’s suicide. His mother, Diane, retreats into therapy and cynicism but Colin holds on to every shred of normal life. He is filled with guilt and searches for someone to confide in: first his estranged grandfather and then a predatory science teacher. He is shunned by his siblings and rejected by his homophobic best friend so he immerses himself in the notebooks his father left behind. Full of strange facts, lists, and historical anecdotes that neither he nor his mother can understand, the notebooks make it difficult to tell what’s real and what’s imagined. In “Some Hell” we see how unspeakable tragedy shapes a life, and how imagination can save us from ourselves.
This is a heartbreaking look into the world of forbidden desire, secret guilt and inner conflicts. At first, it seems to be a tale of a young teenage boy’s struggle with his sexuality and the very real possibility that he caused his father’s suicide. Beyond that surface, however, we see the disappointment, shame, joy and growth that we all experience.
Author Patrick Nathan explores what it means to be human and to change and grow into another person while dealing with the knowledge that the person you were before has died. Colin’s angst over the conflict between his sexual desires and his hope to be accepted and loved is a universal story yet it is also unique to Colin who is convinced that he caused his father’s suicide. Alongside Colin’s growth, his mother, Diane struggles with her own guilt over raising three children alone while hoping to keep her own unique identity as a woman, apart from her children and deceased husband.
The characters hold their own through the book’s many surprises. The writing is compelling, the characters are totally and heartbreakingly believable, and they are very much like the circumstances that have challenged us through time.
“Coming-of-age novel,” the label generally being applied to the book in publicity materials and press reports, unfortunately will constrain readers’ expectations. Many of Colin’s challenges are far from predictable, and his ways of dealing with those challenges even less so. He is a boy with a rich interior life, and the novel is driven by his growing awareness of the worlds around and within him. But we do not watch the world just from Colin’s point of view; his mother, Diane, also has an active interior life that she shares. When we are inside Colin’s head, we find room to understand, particularly when he does not, the difference between his posturing and his yearnings. His fantasies give him life even as he recognizes that he is using them for denial.
Colin watches himself, sometimes with great skepticism, and learns more than he wants to know. Probably his greatest lesson is the same one that each of us must learn from personal experience: that we creates our own hell. Like most of us, Colin really tries to believe the platitudes about self-knowledge being a tool of growth and a step toward actualization. But the more intimately Colin comes to know himself, the more excruciating the torment he can customize for himself. Writer Nathan pushes Colin to the edges of magical realism.
There is no sentimentality in the author’s gorgeous prose. This could have been quite a depressing book; there is no humor here. We see a person growing into the eroticized experience of punishment, fear, humiliation, and even pain and while painful to read at times, we learn from it.