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Only Son

By: Lafie Crum
Reviewed by: John Wendel
Livingston Press, 2008
$15.95, Paperback

Bill is a young daddy from the hills of East Kentucky who has just been laid off from a construction job. He and his wife Martha are whisked away to a party, out next to an old abandoned mine, by smarmy cousin Andy who has shown up from Ohio flush with cash, booze, and pills. The buzz they catch offers a bit of relief on a bad news day. Things get fuzzy in the course of just a couple of paragraphs, setting the tone for a world of hurt poignantly explored in Only Son, Lafie Crum’s debut novel.

The characters in Only Son are not quirky, witty, or particularly fascinating types. Crum takes them through a series of deeply depressing events that move the story along, yet this slim novel races by at a clip.

Crum’s economical descriptions alone are almost enough to recommend this book, and do much to affect the mood throughout. Almost every paragraph sparkles as his characters zone in on something in the lay of the land, the feel of a bathroom floor, or the way a truck hugs a bend in the road. Their descriptions are never too ornate, and they draw us right into their world, physical and emotional. Unlike a Larry Brown first person narrative dealing with similar types of folks, readers don’t feel like they’re hearing a tale over cold beers and shots, rather they’re stuck in thoughts freshly reflecting on events as they occur.

The narration is split between the four main characters: Bill and Martha, their son Billy, and Bill’s mother Cora. Readers rarely encounter one voice for more than two or three pages at a time. In the process of traveling through these alternating reflections, Crumb avoids making his milieu a springboard for broad social commentary, and he doesn’t seem interested in edifying and instructing. Cora is the domestic rock at the center of this death and heartache drama. She has endured plenty, and learned to cope, in large part, by pouring herself into the very land around her. She offers no simple prescription for the aches that reside in these hearts. She just invites us in and lets us take a feel of her old haunted pulse.

The most heartbreaking aspect of Only Son is how these character’s thoughts wander, reflect, and finally reveal to the reader far more than the characters are ever able to communicate to one another. Oct 2008

John Wendel teaches English as a foreign language at Dongguk University in Kyeongju City, South Korea.

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