Monday, December 23, 2019

Review of Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones (2012, MP Publishing)

Rural West Texas in the 1980s; generations of farmers making a living from cotton. One harvest the small community smells smoke, over twenty hoppers burning slowly, with no means to put them out. Rushing to one of the sources, Rob King finds the local high school basketball star and beats him half-to-death. The fire had been burning several hours and it was unlikely he was the culprit. Over the next few weeks a series of tragedies unfold, a boy shot on a school bus, a girl aquaplaning to her death. The police struggle to identify who is responsible. The author, a young teenager at the time, revisits the community a quarter of a century later and using his own memories and interviews with others tries to piece together what actually happened, its place in familial and local history, and who was responsible.

Growing Up Dead in Texas casts the author in the role of a detective about an event in his own life. Cast as part memoir, part mystery, the author revisits the place where he grew up to investigate events over a few months in the 1980s that have haunted him, and the rest of the community, ever since. The crux is who started the fires that destroyed the cotton crop, and who is responsible for a subsequent shooting, and the death of a girl. Drawing on memories and conversations with key actors, the author tries to piece together what the police failed to do, though they did secure a conviction, and to place events in historical context. Jones provides a hesitant account with hints of an unreliable witness, sometimes talking directly to the reader. If it is entirely fiction, then the troubled memoir is very nicely constructed; if it is actually partially a real memoir, then it has an air of authenticity. The author reveals secrets, while also protecting others; drags up history without sensationalising it, and paints characters as they are. It’s a fresh, literary take on telling a mystery tale. At times it is tricky to follow and occasionally raises questions that are not answered, but it maintains intrigue and attention.

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