ALL SAINTS' DAY
By Brent Benoit
Sewanee/Overlook. 236 pp. $26.95
We are all trapped in our own worlds, by perception as much as by language; by language as much as perception. Brent Benoit tells a story set in Cajun Louisiana, of a generation caught between the passing of French as spoken communication and the advent of English; of a pastoral, poverty-stricken life set off by the grotesque presence of oil and chemical industries, of the kind of people most "intellectuals" have never heard of, much less thought about. (Here in Los Angeles, where I write, our connections to "Big Oil" consist mostly of paranoid musings about the Bush administration, or formulaic rants about gas-guzzling SUVs. The idea that actual human beings live their lives governed by oil, gas, petrochemicals, is foreign to us. Gasoline comes out of a pump; it had certainly better do that. How it gets in that pump is none of our business.)
The author here gives us a world of workers with bruised hearts, low expectations and bodies battered in every possible way by the production of oil and its derivatives. These wretched Cajuns race slow horses on dusty tracks; they drink like mad and smoke like chimneys. They whack their wives because there's nobody else they can whack. Unless it's their children.
Russell, originally given the French name Ulysse, literally can't see straight because his no-account father has beaten him so badly. From childhood on, Russell must wear blue prescription glasses that leach all color and vividness from what he perceives. Doreen, who will soon become Russell's wife, is poisoned at the age of 14 by an explosion at a local oil refinery: Just like all those innocent bystanding folks in southern Utah downwind from atomic tests, she's definitively stamped as a cancer victim who will leave this planet far too early. Oh, well! Big business, big government have their imperatives.
Sometime in high school, Russell and Doreen meet and have the world's worst sex.
Presto! Young Whitaker is on the way. Soon after, Doreen comes down with her first bout of cancer; Russell gets out of the house by signing up on an oil tanker. Doreen, breastless by now, has twins. One of them -- the smart one, of course -- ends up dead. Listen, in this world, the odds of surviving are 50-50, and those are pretty good odds.
Remember, though, Russell and Doreen, Whitaker and his still-alive younger brother, Clayton, reside in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, the country where, theoretically, at least, everything is possible. That information just hasn't gotten to them yet, and maybe never will. Like autistic kids filled to the brim in infancy with mercury-laden shots, they can't see the world very clearly. Their perceptions have been permanently tweaked.
How, then, do they find a way to live as humans, to inhabit a world beyond the institutionalized poisons of chain-smoking and slugs of cheap whiskey?
How do they love each other, like each other, connect with each other, even as they're indifferently enveloped by clouds of polluting chemicals?
The author is way too intelligent to give us any pat formula, any occasion of redemption. These are characters who have been dealt really terrible hands in the great poker game of life: The only (meager) wealth they have is their collective identity, their forlorn family, their bleak and terrible surroundings. Sure, they could leave, go north, attend community college, something! But then they would lose the last of anything they have, anything of who they were and are.
American intellectuals have trouble imagining this kind of world. The worst career choice Arthur Miller could come up with to encapsulate the Great American Swindle was that of a traveling salesman. Working on an oil tanker was utterly out of his range. A bad office job, as in that new movie "About Schmidt," is as low on the hog as we care to go.
A world like Russell's or the female equivalent, an existence lived in one of those temporary trailers stuck out in a field someplace, smoke-choked, fluorescently lit, littered by styrofoam takeout cartons, where the only exciting thing to look forward to is another brutal belt from your boyfriend, is beyond our ken. Even our latest crop of grievance-filled memoirs are set firmly in the respectable, if dysfunctional, middle class.
But people like Russell and Doreen, Whitaker and his brother and his hard-luck girlfriend, live in America, too.
Brent Benoit tells a story about them. That makes him unique in our contemporary literature. "All Saints' Day" is as rare as it is authentic and original.