The last words Steve Barr ever said to his brother Mark were, “Don’t forget me, bro.” When Steve passes away (perhaps from complications from his schizophrenia or a complex reaction to his prescribed drug cocktail) Mark insists on driving back to West Virginia to visit his spiky, damaged, unloving family and try to fulfill Steve’s last request.
What follows in the novel, titled after Steve's last wish (due out this October) is a journey into the heart of starkness, an odyssey of within and without. Leaving Brooklyn and returning to his family’s broken home – in every sense of the word – makes Mark confront memories that are unbelievably bad and, along the way, golden as well.
John Michael Cummings details this journey without a trace of Lifetime-movie proselytizing or Hallmark card sweetness. Each character is real, alive, vibrant in their sodden acceptance of the ugly nature of living and being human. Only Sherry Mayer, the mentally-challenged girl Steve called his girlfriend, sees life as colorful and wonderful, a view reflected in her pink, sparkly sweatshirts and the way she eats fries - by throwing them in the air and catching them in her mouth.
The lovely language of Mark’s journey, both inner and physical, seduced me completely. It’s tough and spare, but beautiful at the same time. Look at this description of Steve, the deceased brother:
Steve was that guy on “COPS”—no teeth, no shoes, no shirt, hairy white beer belly hanging down over his dirty jeans, screaming and hollering in the street for Momma or Loretta Lou, only to whimper as the cops walked him like a child to the backdoor of the squad car. On that last visit home eleven years ago, I had thought—he’s dead already.
Greg, Mark’s second brother, is evoked through an odd little story:
God, he was still strange. Back in junior high, he once ate a whole lemon—bit right into the bright-yellow rind, then proceeded to chew it up and swallow it down in half a dozen face-wrenching bites, just to impress some girl who, as it turned out, wasn’t even watching. Instead, he impressed half the guys in school. They looked at him, at first amazed, then a little weirded out.
And there are tiny details that catch the readers by our throats, pulling us further into this peeling, gothic world: a Snoopy figurine, with ‘angry, inverted-apostrophe eyes’. I was transfixed by the simple horror of ‘Overhead sagging power lines, black snakes frying on the sky.’ In fact, snakes appear throughout the book, most frighteningly as a metaphor for the wires Steve and Mark’s father attached to Steve’s mattress designed as homespun electro-therapy for when the boy wet the bed.
Yes, Cummings isn’t holding back in this book. Such dark visions take great courage to write, and I was lulled and horrified by those dreams.
Throughout the novel there is a struggle over burial versus cremation. Mark is entirely against turning his brother to ashes, since Steve requested a corner of the churchyard near their grandfather. This theme is expounded, always with frustrated attempts: the burial ground has a two-year waiting list. Mark cannot get legal advice quickly enough. And always his own stifled endeavors, lost promise, and mental challenges are there to catch him up, stop him from doing something heroic.
As someone who cremated both parents, I was able to read with detachment the sections giving Mark’s fervent opposition to cremation. After all, he is what is now called an unreliable narrator, and we all have different views on death and the afterlife. Still, for those readers who might not be able to read those sections with such detachment, I must advise caution for those chapters.
I loved the scenes with Sherry, and even the taut, frigid interactions with Mark’s parents are so real they bloom like funereal flowers. However, my favorite section of the book was the painting of Steve’s old bedroom with Sears paint Mark finds in the attic. The walls are covered with notes about the Baltimore Orioles, and Mark refuses to use primer or sandpaper before he splashes on the Eggshell White. His method is explained, and for me it crystallized the novel:
There was a secret reason for my slap-dash approach. If I painted over the Mona Lisa, experts could remove my cheap Sears paint, and there’d she be, unblemished and all the more radiant for the world to worship. If I soaked Steve’s walls without first sanding away scuffs, smudges, and stains, the evidence of his growing up in this little house might not be destroyed but preserved.
Not destroyed, but preserved.
Because it seems we are all looking for a piece of the future, a slice of memory even after we are dust or ashes. As we write, create, paint, or simply survive, one large portion of being human is a plea that screams, Remember this. Don’t forget me. Don’t forget me, bro.