Reviewed by Christopher X. Shade
In Brandon Hobson’s second book, Deep Ellum, just out from Calamari Press, siblings reunite in a bad part of town, this time in a district of Dallas where apartments look out at warehouses, low-rise buildings, 7-11s, liquor stores, and bars. The kind of streets with graffiti and with shopping carts left on corners. But there are jazz clubs and parties. When you go out for a smoke, you encounter people who are either on the street or seem to be not far from it. Desolation pervades and heartbreak is commonplace. Every day is rife with the inevitability of drugs and booze.
Gideon, the main character, arriving from a year-long stint going nowhere in Chicago, lands at his sister Meg’s apartment and immediately searches the place for cigarettes and drugs, and at the very least pain pills for his toothache. Even before you open the book, this mood is in the captivating cover design and artwork of this, another Calamari Press art object: the title is like scrawled graffiti on the brick wall of a low-rise, with a sliver of overcast sky that is crossed out with telephone poles and wires, and all is under a gloom, what seems like a hard rain.
We learn right away that Gideon’s homecoming is not a happy one. His mother has overdosed, and it’s not the first time. The first line is a strong hook: “I left Chicago and returned to Dallas when our mother overdosed.” Gideon failed to make it in Chicago. Before he left there, someone told him something that could be the book’s through-line: “[she] told me that the lack of chance and excess is the beginning of failure. Don’t go home, she said. Don’t fly to a damp wasteland, emptiness, fields. There’s nothing down there anymore.” This rings a tone of loss; it is a soulful plea to look in only one direction and that direction is not behind you. It’s a siren song to leave everything behind so that chance and excess can fulfill the promise of leading you to a life worth living.
Gideon returns to Deep Ellum to recharge. Even in the language of departure, other places do not have what he needs, which is to be close to his sister and brother and mother: he is in Deep Ellum to “desire solitude and be with my mother until I felt safe enough to leave again.” He writes postcards to the people he misses in Chicago, but Chicago does not seem an especially strong pull for him. He sends postcards of other cities to his friends in Chicago, as if he is elsewhere. He is aimless. Yet something holds him in Deep Ellum. His emotions, too, are not clearly drawn, though he is preoccupied with the personal histories of his family, much of which are poignant; it is in the deft storytelling of his childhood that one is drawn in and begins to care about Gideon and his family.
One strong pull to note is Gideon’s desire for his sister, Meg. It is not vague at all. It is sometimes ambiguous in scenes about what exactly is occurring between Gideon and Meg, but there is clearly a sexual relationship and has been since they were very young.
Desire is a prominent theme. Its omission otherwise from Gideon’s life is telling. Even in the mundane, he has no energy, no ambition. When he goes out walking: “I could imagine myself walking like this for a long time. All around me was narrowness and shadows, brick buildings, the street. The air was heavy and dead.” He feels perfectly at home in these closed, bleak surroundings. At the end of the opening chapter, he is alone. He gets drunk on vodka and falls asleep in a chair. Such is the vitality of this character. The desire to be with Meg is clear, and effectively serves as the propulsion of the opening chapters. A fascinating part of the story is Gideon’s incapacity to have sexual relations with other women. One of them is a not-so-subtle personification of desire, a woman who lives downstairs named Desiree. The Desiree thread throughout the book, however, seems to unravel. Entire scenes are left undescribed, like this one: “We drank wine and then we were on the floor, our bodies pressed against each other. She got on top of me for a while. Then we sat up and watched more TV.”
Meg is the center of Gideon’s universe. He so longs for her presence that he has moved into her apartment. He wears her coat. He seems to worry more that she may not want to be with him, than what she might be doing or with whom—when all indications are that she’s in a dangerous situation.
Gideon’s mother is not the center of his universe, despite the opening line of the book. She doesn’t make an appearance until a third of the way through. With Meg refusing to visit her, Gideon finally drives out on his own. His mother is “in bed on her side, under the covers, eyes barely open.” His reunion with her occurs in summary, followed by some small talk, all with very little self-awareness. It’s hard to believe Gideon would not be overwhelmed with some variety of emotion. His mother seems to realize this. He bought for her a Christmas snow globe because it was on sale. She says, “Christmas was last month,” pinning him with the truth, while he thinks she is “wallowing in self-pity.” Gideon just doesn’t get it.
But he gets what they are not, as mother and son, and as a family. Families like ours end up in places like Deep Ellum, the narrator seems to say. He ties Deep Ellum to family history: “Buildings are small and crooked, deprived of sunlight…there was no color anywhere. A grainy film, something out of an old photograph.” He sees himself in people on the street, like the preacher shouting “something about freedom and spirits” to no one, with “pain in his face, the suffering, the sadness.” But it is ultimately a story of appreciation and hope. Convincingly, he finds the beauty in the bleak: “From the rear fender of a parked car along Elm hung little icicles that sparkled.” A man on the street in a Mavericks jersey, baggy pants, and stocking cap, claps his gloved hands and sings “Under the Boardwalk” and wags his finger at Gideon. Like this man, Gideon is not unhappy to be in Deep Ellum.
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