Michael Stephens Brooklyn Book of the Dead

ISBN 13: 9781564780379

Brooklyn Book of the Dead

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In The Brooklyn Book of the Dead, Michael Stephens presents the most devastating vision of the Irish-American family since the nightmarish portrayals of Eugene O'Neill and James T. Farrell. Returning to their Brooklyn neighborhood for the wake and funeral of their father (Customs Inspector Leland Coole, aka Jackie Ducks, Little Lee, Crazy Jack, but remembered by his children as the "old bastard"), the sixteen Coole children talk and reminisce about their father and family; all adults now, their lives have been painful failures involving drugs, alcoholism, violence, petty crime, incest, and despair. Like any truly emotionally crippled children of a dysfunctional family, the Cooles rant with bitterness about their pasts but likewise romanticize their family, coupling an ability to analyze their plight with an utter inability to do anything about it. The novel is also the story of the decline of urban America and the story of third-generation immigrants who are both cut off from their roots and yet unassimilated into the illusory American melting pot. Stephens writes of all this with a passion and love of his materials. And he writes bravely because this is a book that will be attacked by those who believe in the mythical American family invoked by "family-values" politicians and wealthy evangelists. If Stephens has a message at all, it is that families are diseases made fatal by a cynical American society.

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From Kirkus Reviews:

Poet, playwright, and award-winning essayist Stephens puts the fun in dysfunctional with his second novel about the Irish-American Cooles (Season at Coole, 1972). Here, family patriarch Jack Coole, once a customs inspector on Manhattan's West Side docks, has died in Florida retirement. His 16 children drift back to the old neighborhood, Brooklyn's East New York slums, for the funeral. They remember their ``cursed progenitor'' in inarticulate conversation and supple inner monologues, their language a tenement symphony of Italian, Jewish, and Irish street lingo from a generation or two ago. Meanwhile, the dead man--himself motherless from the age of five, a drinker, brawler, and brutal father but good provider--remains opaque and unknown, a figure of vague legend and precisely remembered grievance to his children. They are the walking wounded, third- generation Irish-Americans, still looking for a home. They've outlived brother-sister incest, torture, and casually attempted murder to become, among other things, the city's oldest crack addict, a recovered alcoholic kept in balance by lithium, a fireman with a burnt-out face, a nun in retreat from the world, and a homeless bum the family calls ``Psycho.'' Angry, funny and tender, rather than grim, Stephens is a poet of the negative, the failed, the shameful, who can match Samuel Beckett for dour comedy and Joyce (a bit self-consciously at times) for the lyric lilt. But his subject is American in the line of Henry Roth and Ginsberg's Kaddish: immigrants driven mad by the confusion and harshness of their surroundings. At least the Cooles live to bury their old man and tell his tales. Among the blacks who inherited their inner-city hell, Stephens reminds us, it's the old man these days who bury the young. In five long chapters of increasing power, Stephens dismantles the American dream. -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

From Publishers Weekly:

In this sequel to The Season of Coole , the Brooklyn funeral of J. Leland Coole, retired Irish-American customs inspector, draws all 16 of his children to the casket, and the surge of common memory among the survivors gives family values an awful beating. The force compelling the Cooles to gather by the "rotten old bastard," whose "voice alone set off all the old post-traumatic shock syndromes," is a legacy of his brutal fathering. But expect no standard gropings for self-knowledge, confessions of failure, love-hate ordeals or other genre cliches here--the situation is far beyond conventional remedy. The 10 boys, in or approaching middle age, are criminals, alcoholics, addicts and thugs; the six girls express the family psychosis more passively, but share it. Stephens's stream-of-consciousness blend of anecdote and recollection, psychologically real and stylistically natural, dominates his unplotted narrative, which moves among the 16 figures, probing their failures to forge any sense of moral accountability. Remarkably, although idiosyncrasies are noted, the 16 do not distinguish themselves particularly as characters; they register clearly only as elements in the collective dysfunction. Even more remarkably, the account is witty, thoughtful and absorbingly readable, as well as an important study of urban violence.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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