Now that I’ve reminded you how long it’s been since you watched Tim Burton’s Batman, I’d like to tell you a bit about Justin Evans’ A Good and Happy Child. I’ll give you an out, though. If you want to save yourself a bit of reading, you could watch this promotional video that manages to be both horrifying and in no way representative of the novel itself:
As if often the case with me, I bought this book for the cover.
I was likely kiling precious study time when I picked it up in Chapters, as it spent several dusty months on my shelf before I sat my exams and got down to reading it. Really, I think the mounting sense of shame only enhanced my reading experience and made me feel for George that much more.
The basic story is that George, a respectable businessman, has recently become a family man with the birth of his son. While he loves the baby, he can’t bear to touch him. He and his wife assume that it’s just New Daddy Jitters, but it gets to the point where George seeks the aid of a therapist. On his first visit, George mentions that he had gone to therapy as a boy after the sudden death of his father. His therapist asks George to keep notebooks of what he remembers–very little it seems initially–about his early therapy session, hoping that doing so will help him.
My problem, while it may be uncommon, seemed more like a hang-up than a crisis; I had no wish to dramatize myself, become the hero who asks the right questions, solves the riddles, and slays the dragon in an epic sung in the streets of Manhattan.
It is soon revealed that young George was an odd, lonely child, who began to see what he calls his ‘Friend’ at night. The nature of the Friend is unclear; frightening at first, but then acting as something of a guide. The Friend suggests to young George that people around him were responsible for his father’s death, which did happen under some extreme and mysterious circumstances. From here, things spiral as they always do in situations of potential demonic visitation, and George goes from being a sensitive, sad child to a sickly shell of himself to the (short-term) inmate of a psychiatric ward.
This kind of story is familiar territory for folks who frequent the cinema for horror movies, and there has been a resurgence of popularity of possession stories in the past few years: The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism, those godawful Exorcist side projects, and a number of things that went right to DVD, as well they should’ve. They usually feature a strong skeptic, a religious type with a shady past, dark rooms, and more than a hint at the idea of Southern backwardness. Yes, the book has these things, but it also has an understanding that the fear we experience as children is the most potent, and is the one that stays with us when the lights go out. I’m not going to quote the visitation passages here because they are best read alone at night with you so desperate to see what happens that you’re afraid to let your eyes leave the page and find George’s Friend smiling next to you.
An endorsement of any book can’t come without mentioning the person who wrote the thing, so I should say that Evans is a solid writer, not just a giver of the willies. While I presented you with the bare bones of the novel in a straightforward fashion, it doesn’t play out that way when you’re reading it. Each chapter is a different time period, another stylistic choice that hasn’t been ground-breaking in a while, but Evans manages to make it, if not quite fun, then certainly a pleasure to read. The novel goes back and forth between George’s diary entries, set sometimes in the present (or close enough), sometimes in his childhood, and what appear to be present-tense narrations of things as they are happening. As George’s mental state and health deteriorate in both times, it becomes harder to keep track.
There are points of weakness. We see the monster early on–a classic no-no–but because his shape keeps changing, that’s not a problem. The writing loses some power when a band of educated, well-meaning adult characters explain to young George that demons are real, and, nooo, it’s not superstitious luncheon meat. Also, the character of George’s wife and her constantly referenced Irish curls/temper/whathaveyou come off as a bit much. But then there are images like this, and all is forgiven:
My mother, at that time, was like two women trussed together, like rose-bushes my father tied to a single stake to make them look more full.
Did I mention the book opens with a bit of Auden? Just give it a chance already.