Bill Clegg’s debut novel, “Did You Ever Have a Family,” arrives amid a thunderclap of industry hubbub that any writer of quiet, mournful fiction would die for. Which is almost what Clegg did in 2005. As a young super-agent sealing million-dollar deals, he flew too close to the sun — in his case, crack cocaine — and flamed out. He chronicled that spectacular crash in a memoir called “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man,” but by the time the book arrived in 2010, Clegg had already bounced back into the upper atmosphere of New York publishing. Now his first novel — part of a two-book deal — is the inaugural offering from a new Simon & Schuster imprint and it’s longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
The wild trajectory of Clegg’s career sounds like the stuff of fantasy, but the characters in “Did You Ever Have a Family” are living in something far more grim. They’re sinking beneath the weight of an adamantine tragedy. In the novel’s opening pages, an explosive house fire in a small Connecticut town kills a young woman and her fiance on the night before their wedding. The flowers are redistributed to funerals, the cake ends up at the fire station, and the relatives stumble around in shock.
The “grief novel,” with its initial calamity and its long shadow of desolation, is a peculiar but persistent genre. In “Red Hook Road” (2010), Ayelet Waldman at least let her bride and groom walk down the aisle, but then quickly killed them off between the church and the reception. What do we want from these stories of happiness smashed at its frothy peak? The best grief novels — by Elizabeth Strout , Graham Swift and others — satisfy our craving for wisdom, emotional or even spiritual, and offer some light to navigate the darkness that falls over even the most blessed life. The weaker novels provide a sugar rush of emotionalism and a vaguely shameful sense of having been manipulated.
From the first page, Clegg writes about sorrow with such authenticity and dignity that we’re immediately willing to trust him. There’s a simmering debate in town about who or what caused that deadly fire, but the rumored arsonist died along with the bride and groom, so there’s no possibility of bringing him to justice. Clegg’s focus, instead, is on sifting through the emotional ashes.
The novel unfolds as a series of character studies, several only tangentially related to the victims. In a chapter called “Edith,” for instance, the florist gossips with us about the bride’s wealthy mother and others of her ilk who have so changed the local ambiance over the years. “We no longer live in a town,” Edith complains, “not a real one anyway. We live in a pricey museum, one that’s only open on weekends, and we are its janitors.” That class resentment, along with the town’s racism, is further fleshed out by the caterer, who notes that he was never paid for the canceled wedding. Not that he feels put out. “I would have torn up the check,” he claims.
These apparently peripheral voices keep arriving and demanding our attention, launching into their confidential testimonies before we’re entirely sure who they are. It’s a risky strategy, frustrating at first, but it eventually dramatizes Clegg’s intimation that no one is peripheral. All these people — related by blood or chance — have loved and lost, suffered justly and unjustly. They’re all survivors, “alive but destroyed.”
And yet there’s no denying the emotional prominence of the two surviving mothers. June Reid, mother of the dead bride, was standing in the yard the night her house exploded. Once the victims are buried, she gets into her car and starts driving. “She had not planned on leaving this particular morning, but after she wakes and showers and slowly puts on the jeans and blue-and-white striped, boat-neck, cotton jersey she has been wearing for weeks, she knows it’s time,” Clegg writes. “Her driver’s license, along with everything else that had been in the house, is also gone.”
While June takes up residence as a kind of ghost at a motel on the West Coast, another victim’s mother stays put and endures the town’s lurid gossip. Her lamentation takes the form of rehearsing the whole sorry path of her life: an abusive spouse, a child out of wedlock, crooked boyfriends. “Why,” she wonders, “has she only ever learned the most important lessons at the speed of great pain?” In one of the novel’s most desperately sad episodes, she befriends a lottery scammer just so she’ll have someone to talk to.
As a plot, this is awfully still. Its energy is all grief; its movement subterranean and retrospective. That lack of incidence puts enormous pressure on Clegg’s quiet, tightly controlled style and his subtle examination of these characters’ minds. But “Did You Ever Have a Family” rises to that challenge again and again. The grieving mothers are particularly moving as they consider the way their children rejected them and then came back into their lives, only to be swept away forever. “To be given a glimpse now was a bitter miracle,” Clegg writes, “a ghostly caress that left more regret than solace.”
“Did You Ever Have a Family” never strains for profundity. Clegg lets these modest, wounded people pace back and forth across the graves of their loved ones. If they suffer unbearably for errors that can never be corrected, they’re also granted moments of solace. When one of them says, “All we can do is play our parts and keep each other company,” we know she’s right.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On Oct. 21, Bill Clegg will be at Busboys & Poets (Brookland), 625 Monroe St. NE, Washington, D.C. 20017.
By Bill Clegg
Scout. 304 pp. $26