His latest novel, “The Pallbearers Club”, continues in the macabre vein but adds the dimension of a quasi-autobiography. As Tremblay says in his afterword, of protagonist Art Barbara, “To be clear, Art Barbara is and isn’t me. Well, okay, that’s mostly me! The book is set in Massachusetts and Providence, RI, Tremblay’s favorite grounds. This part of the country also happens to be my backyard, so I can attest to the plausibility of Tremblay’s portrayal of this location from the 1980s to almost today.
21 books to read this summer
Who is Art Barbara and what is her story? Before revealing this, we should talk about the presentation of the book. We are led to believe that it is not Tremblay’s composition, but the found manuscript of the Memoirs of Art. A rather familiar vanity. But, to compound the layers of the narrative, we discover that the manuscript was annotated by a woman named Mercy Brown. She injects whole pages of commentary on crucial points, addressing her critique, handwritten in red ink, to the art. Dual and dueling narrators lend the book’s events a high level of indeterminacy that proves both mysterious and entertaining. As with Nabokov’s “Pale Fire,” our understanding of the story is complicated by Mercy’s contradictory testimony.
We first encounter the art as a sad high school bag in 1988. “Nerd” or “slacker” or “quirky” would be a step up for him. His family life is dismal and he has no hobbies or passions. Quite clever and adept with words (his memoirs are full of startling metaphors and deft narratives), he intends to amass resume material for his college applications. So he creates the “Pallbearers Club”. Basically, it envisions a team of student interns who pose as mourners at the lonely funeral of undesirables. The scenes from the funeral home sponsoring the students offer plenty of dark comedy: “We made it off the stairs [with the casket]…I was not well. My vision was blurry and unreadable ink blots were encroaching on the edges. My head filled with wet peat and moss, and my ears rang as I sank into the swamp of myself… One of the men in the black suit said, “You look blue and the other added: “More greenish. Like he was seasick.”
It is in this frightening and moving place that Art meets his nemesis/companion/dark shadow, Mercy Brown.
Mercy shares her name with an actual resident of Rhode Island, whose body was exhumed in 1892 by villagers who believed she was a vampire. This knowledge puts Art on alert. Should he – and should we – believe that 1988 Mercy is this same creature? A girl in a military jacket full of pop culture pins, turning art into punk music? Very unlikely.
And yet, with the entrance of Mercy, Art’s life takes a decided turn in occult realms where inexplicable things happen. When Art looks at one of the “standard” photos Mercy takes of an open casket, “there was a green spot on the film and it was floating above the dead woman’s chest”. Later, Art watches Mercy sleep and notices that a blanket wrapped around her wrist “pulsates like exposed musculature made of a shiny, convoluted network of connective and vascular tissue.”
Art comes to tolerate and even welcome these shivers that lessen boredom. But the two teenagers end up falling out, separating in a frightening way.
Art grows up, becomes a C-list rock musician — finally achieving a bit of the cool hipster vibe he’s always dreamed of — then, near present day, Mercy reappears. It’s at this point that Art’s life really spirals out of control. He abandons his career, his friends and his personal hygiene and falls prey to paranoia. Is this cascade of bad luck his doing or the culmination of a long-term plot? The reader is delightfully left adrift.
Tremblay’s depiction of life as a New England teenager in the 1980s and the rock club scene in the 1990s and early 21st century is vivid and accurate. It describes Providence particularly well (with a few nods to our native son, HP Lovecraft).
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The main attraction of this tale is the complex portrayal of a man full of potential, desire and talent, but who eventually betrays himself with a not-so-subliminal desire to fail. I remembered Oskar in “The Tin Drum” by Gunter Grass: forever a stuck up juvenile. The art has turned into a stunted thing to be “safe,” and yet he and Mercy are two planets locked in a mutually destructive orbit.
Readers eager to parse the riddles of identity and reality, and those who simply savor the quiet terrors and portrayal of a disintegrating mentality, will find “The Pallbearers Club” to be a welcome coffin of chills to shoulder. .
Paul Di Filippo is the author of the Steampunk trilogy, “The Deadly Kiss-Off” and “The Summer Thieves”.
William Morrow. 288 pages. $27.99
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