ALL SAINTS' DAY
Brent Benoit


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Overlook Press, 2002
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

General Fiction, Louisiana

ALL SAINTSí DAY is slice-of-life writing. Think of it as taking cores for geological samples. It shows us incidents in the lives of a Louisiana family, the only thread between them being the acceptance of tragedy.

Ulysse/Russell Bueche (his name changed in rejection of the familyís French heritage) has his sight permanently damaged as a child, from a beating by his father. The death of a neighbor woman leaves her young daughter Doreen to take care of her father and brother. When Russell and Doreen marry and have a family, their son Clayton accidentally kills his twin. Russell takes jobs out of town, trying to run away from himself, and Doreen, fighting cancer caused by the townís main industry, is left to take care of the two remaining boys, Clayton and Whitaker. Thatís only the first part of the book, but it gives you the idea.

Reading ALL SAINTSí DAY is like being able to see only what is in front of you, detached from feeling, through a fog, with tunnel vision. "No one ever leaves Maringouin," says one of the residents, voicing the opinion of all. None of the characters can really believe that there might be anything else. They sometimes leave, but always come back and accept failure.

Three quarters of the way through ALL SAINTSí DAY there is a major change. The viewpoint acquires imagination. In a typical idiosyncrasy, the first person through whom we see clearly and broadly is Clayton, on tentative release from a mental hospital. We see his delusions, but thereís no fog blurring them. Next to be seen unobscured is the familyís relative Ferdinand, an old man taking his daily walk. Ferdinand remembers with appreciation a friend, now dead, who used to talk as if there really was a world beyond the one they know. Ferdinand plants a grove of trees so the trees will reach into the future for him. Ferdinand is such a refreshing and endearing change from all the other characters that I will remember him with fondness.

But in ALL SAINTSí DAY even broadening perception goes sour. Author Brent Benoit describes the settings of his events so vividly that itís a real accomplishment to have surrounded that brightness with a predominating mental fog, and give it the toxic twist that denies even the reach for hope. Benoitís accomplishment suggests a general writing principle: It is not the description of what is in front of you that creates a living environment, it is the suggestion that there is more outside, surrounding but unseen.

Youíve heard of "regional" books? The kind where it is assumed only people from a particular region would like it? Well, Iím not talking about the region of rural Louisiana. Iím talking about a mental region called defeat and depression. ALL SAINTSí DAY was published as part of the Sewanee Writersí Series, which indicates there are people who can relate to it. You may be one of them. If so, itís all yours.

Mar 2003 Review Originally Published on the Independent Reviews Site

 

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