Books

It Doesn't Always Get Better: Patrick Nathan's 'Some Hell'

Nathan explores the hyperbolic mind of the teenager, a time bomb of unresolved emotion that can be unleashed at any perceived slight, no matter how minor.

Some Hell
Patrick Nathan

Graywolf

Feb 2018

"They ate McDonald's in a town called Globe, right in the middle of the mountains as if someone had dropped it there and couldn't reach down into the cracks to fish it out."

There is a thread of the supernatural that runs throughout Some Hell. Heaven, Hell, fate, ghosts, dreams, and foresight all play roles throughout, offering the idea that there are forces beyond our control leading us into the situations we find ourselves in on a daily basis. Still, one can tell from the very title of the book which of those forces are most pervasive throughout Patrick Nathan's horrifying debut novel. Most of us go about our day, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, usually having some idea where we are going and why we are doing what we do. We have reasons to keep going, be they particular interests, our occupation, or family. Some Hell is a story of watching those reasons to go on slowly and methodically stripped away. It's a reminder that for some, Hell is more than a biblical concept; rather, it's the very reality in which they exist.

It's not a spoiler -- it's right there on the back of the book -- to mention that Some Hell is about a teenager whose father violently commits suicide. This teenager is also gay, and coming to grips with this side of himself that he spends a lot of time loathing. His mother, not exactly on good terms with his father at the time of his death, is trying to cope with the suicide while doing her best to continue to care for her children. His older brother is a non-verbal autistic teenager bordering on adulthood, whose violent outbursts make him an unsettling presence in the house. His sister, in the process of cutting herself off from the rest of the family before the suicide, is a venomous, cruel island unto herself following their father's act. This is a family that was nearly at its breaking point when the father was alive; his death seems to amplify every deep-seated issue they have, until they are torn apart, separated, and broken.

If this doesn't sound like a laugher, well, that's the point.

Some Hell is told from two points of view: we spend roughly two thirds of the book with Colin, the teenager described above, and maybe one third with his mother, Diane. While Colin thinks at the beginning of the novel that he and his sister might be growing closer (even if any closeness appears to the reader to be pharmaceutically assisted), most of the book finds Colin finding his only solace in the attention of Diane and vice versa. When Diane takes up smoking as a coping mechanism, their little ritual where Colin lights her cigarettes is highlighted as maybe the closest thing to normalcy they can find. It may not be healthy, necessarily, but at least both of them find some comfort in it.

That this is the best that one can find in terms of their search for peace is, of course, a betrayal of the utter lack thereof throughout the rest of their lives. Diane finds herself in a dead end job with three increasingly distant children, where the only companion she seems to take seriously in a conversation is her therapist -- though even with her therapist, she appears to be trying to "win" her interactions with him rather than do any actual soul-searching. That she discovers any small truths about herself and her life as a result feels almost accidental.

Colin, for his part, was in the process of coming to terms with his own sexuality when he saw his father's brains on the floor. To say that his father's suicide complicates this process is underselling just how awful things get for Colin throughout Some Hell; some of it is self-inflicted -- and to Nathan's great credit, he lets none of his characters off the hook for their actions -- though most of it seems due to what appears to be an innate human cruelty that lines this novel. Colin is let down by authority figures, he is abused by his friends, he is misunderstood by his family.

Nathan's prose as Diane is deadpan and defeatist, a layered-but-hopeless look at the worst of suburban ennui. His work behind the eyes of Colin, however, is unflinching, drifting effortlessly between plainspoken description and poetic embellishment. Part of this is based on the slow discovery of what was left behind by Colin's father, a collection of writings that pointed to his eventual fate but never explicitly spells it out. Most of it, however, is the hyperbolic mind of the teenager, a time bomb of unresolved emotion that can be unleashed at any perceived slight, no matter how minor. When the worst fears and basest desires of said teenager begin to worm their way into reality, then, the world-shattering way in which Nathan writes about them feels true and accurate. Similarly, the full-heartedness in Colin's capacity for hope and love even amidst his crumbling surroundings is what makes all of the weight of this book bearable. That sliver of hope is what allows us to see this story through to the end, with the idea that maybe even those in the worst of circumstances one can find something like peace.

It would be an outright lie to say that Some Hell is an enjoyable read. Despite the glimmers of hope, there's so much time spent with despair that you absolutely have to put it down every so often, if only to remember that your own life maybe isn't quite so bad. There are plenty of moments when Nathan is ensuring that you, as the reader, feel as uncomfortable as possible, whether through graphic descriptions of teenage sexuality or the near-caricature cruelty of other characters. The depiction of Colin's older brother feels potentially problematic as well, a human whose means of communication and interaction more closely parallel a wild animal, though this may be a trick of the light; the book's point of view depends as much on Colin's perception of the world around him as the way it actually exists, so the reader's perception of the character is likely skewed by the difficulty he presents to Colin.

Given the crushing nature of its subject matter, it's difficult to recommend Some Hell to other potential readers who may not be ready for the depths that they are about to plumb. Still, it's important work. It's the type of book that reminds us that everyone has their own personal struggle. It reminds us to act with empathy and compassion, because we can never know for certain who is trying to survive their own personal Hell.

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