The Top 100 Book Review: A Death in the Family – James Agee (1957)

Beautiful Writing, Tepid Story

“We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”

Rating: smooth-starsmooth-star

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I almost hate myself for doing this: a book that is so beautifully written with descriptions of life that burst from the page getting only two stars. There were times I put the book down and really took a moment to live the words. That’s how good this writing is. Take a moment to take in this excerpt below:

“Before long the city thinned out into the darkened evidences of the kind of flea-bitten semi-rurality which always peculiarly depressed him: mean little homes, and other inexplicably new and substantial, set too close together for any satisfying rural privacy or use, too far, too shapelessly apart to have adherences as any kind of community; mean little pieces of ill-cultivated land behind them, and alongside the road, between them, trash and slash and broken sheds and rained-out billboards: he passed a late, late streetcar, no passengers abroad, far out near the end of its run.”

Reading these words were like finding sugar highs on every page, indulgence at its finest. So, where did it go wrong for me? The fact that this magnificent, punctuating prose did not coalesce into something more. The story, for me, was one big descent as the author seemed to lose a grip on what he was trying to do with the characters.

An explanation for this is easy to find: this was published after James Agee’s death, leaving an editor to put it all together. There are some controversies surrounding it, such as did he have a friend finish the missing parts and some debate of what was really meant to be published. I haven’t dived into all of the different decisions people made when putting this book together, but you can tell that things aren’t quite right.

The most poignant parts of the book come from the son of the father who dies, Rufus. The flashbacks of the book usually focus on him and you can see the relationship between father and son burgeoning through different vignettes. What particularly affected me was seeing how the son interacted with people bullying him, someone yearning for connection with other people and getting shut down. The question left is who is going to help him navigate this cruel world now? Will his mother fill this role?

A main theme present was religion and how people use it to cope, as the father’s side of the family were non-believers while the mother’s side fervent. This all felt very flat to me. The conflicts it created were just small bickering between family members, hardly worthy of reading about. Maybe the appeal to this story is how real it all seems; since everything is so quotidian, it is easy to relate to as I could see myself having similar arguments and conflicts with people within my own family. But, that’s all the book has as far as interaction, leaving me a bit underwhelmed.

Another problem with this book is stylistically how it is set up. The flashbacks are all in italicized font that is hard to read. It is also normal to see something like below: multiple pages with no indentation. Pair this with the author’s focus on beautiful, descriptive writing and you will fall into pits where you go pages with a hard time comprehending what’s going on.

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You are about to be aware of your short attention span.

This book just didn’t do it for me. The beautiful writing ended up being hallow since it did not also get reflected in real purpose of themes and characters. While the conversations and feelings are believable and relatable, I felt like I was just a funeral director over hearing families interact in a stressful time. While I get the disjointed story due to how the book was put together, I could not overlook it.

 

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