First and foremost, it’s a fine debut novel by a greatly talented young author.
Second: It is a cutting-edge novel that presents a Prodigal Son Returns motif that’s derived from the conflicts, tensions, and dangers between small-town Midwestern social norms and the protagonist’s efforts to navigate that milieu.
Third: Some Go Hungry is a literary novel that’s rooted in the traditions of naturalism and realism, and from its title to its content it harkens back to two other novels with Midwestern settings and bold narrative explorations,Some Must Watch by Edwin Daly and Some Came Running by James Jones. Before highlighting the superb qualities that make J. Patrick Redmond’s debut novel as good as it is, it’s important to highlight some back-story about the third main point. There’s some marvelous connective tissue here.
Quickly, a brief digression:In downstate Illinois throughout the 1950s, legendary novelist James “From Here to Eternity” Jones and his mentor, Lowney Handy (a childless, older, married woman, whose sponsorship and support of Jones from 1944 to 1950, allowed him to write his exceedingly ambitious, National Book Award-winning From Here to Eternity.) She ran a countercultural writers’ group, locally known as The Colony. James Jones financed the venture. It was incorporated as the Handy Writers’ Colony. At its peak, it harbored more than twenty aspiring authors. The Colony was a short-lived yet trailblazing experiment (a truly countercultural realm before Haight-Ashbury and infinitely more serious than any Beat-related shenanigans). What does any of that have to do with Redmond’s Some Go Hungry?
Plenty. Because the hallmark of the bulk of the writing done at the Handy Writers’ Colony in the 1950s was serious fiction (the novel being the Holy Grail), with a strong emphasis on truth-telling in relation to sex, all types of relationships, and most of all the struggle of individuals to prevail against mainstream prejudices.
Example: When Edwin “Sonny” Daly’s novel Some Must Watch was completed at The Colony and then published by Scribner’s in New York in 1957 (the same prestigious publishing house that published Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James Jones and so many others), it was noted by critics to be a startling debut for an author then barely 20 years old; and his theme of incorrigible parent-son acrimony dovetailed with the popularity of James Dean and Rebel Without a Cause.
One year later, in January 1958, James Jones’s second published novel—Some Came Running—offered up a magnum opus of a narrative, within which Jones sought to anatomize a macrocosmic array of small-town Midwestern characters and patterns by dramatizing, in microcosmic detail, one dozen lives of quiet postwar desperation.Now we have J. Patrick Redmond’s Some Go Hungry, which confronts a slew of contemporary issues and intimate human problems with intelligence and grace.
In essence, Some Go Hungry is the story of Grey Daniels, a gay man raised in Southern Indiana (as was J. Patrick Redmond), who returns to Vincennes to help manage his family’s restaurant business (which the author in fact did). Though the novel is rooted in autobiographical material, it is not a memoir.
Tension abounds and much recent social history is deftly woven into the fabric of the narrative. It is to Redmond’s credit that his novel never veers into melodrama.
It’s also admirable that while the story induces recollections of Matthew Shepard and his awful fate (the homicidal gay-bashing that led to Shepard’s brutal death in 1998 has been chronicled in a film and also in the play The Laramie Project), it finds its own way to memorialize a high school classmate of Redmond’s, who was presumed to be gay and whose murder back in the mid-1980s remains unsolved.
Much of this novel is dialogue-driven, and yet its most powerful passages are often those that shine a light on that which is not said. In the Midwest, silence is telling.
Inevitably, overlapping themes of hypocrisy and fear and bigotry and contempt infiltrate the story’s architecture. Some Go Hungry reminds us of how dangerous it is in a traditional small-town in the so-called Heartland to be different. Remember: the Midwest is a vast portion of the United States, ranging from Western Iowa to Northern Wisconsin, and all across Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska, and beyond.
In this narrative, the realistic social structure is utterly intact and to a large degree unimpeachable: that is, the homophobic, Bible-clinging, God fearing archetypes who populate the town and cheer on a local youth pastor for his hellfire-and-brimstone, anti-gay sermons are the same folksy neighbors filling up the narrator’s family’s restaurant on Sunday afternoons (and just about every other day of the week).
Of course that local youth pastor has skeletons in his closet – like the fact that he and the narrator had their adolescent sexual awakenings with each other in their teens. Redmond dramatizes with brilliant restraint how surreal it is for the narrator to sit in a pew and be silent as the youth pastor now rails against “deviant” lifestyles.
Fortunately, that restraint on the part of the author sustains the book. Some Go Hungry is not a novel merely of interest for the LGBT demographic. It is, indeed, a novel for all readers who believe in the healing power of words.
The capstone issue here is that Some Go Hungry has been published under the banner of Kaylie Jones Books (an imprint of Akashic Books in New York City). And, yes, author and publisher Kaylie Jones is the daughter of James “From Here to Eternity” Jones. Her decision to publish J. Patrick Redmond’s thought-provoking novel would doubtless please both her father and his maverick ally, Lowney Handy.
M. J. Moore is a frequent contributor to Neworld Review.
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