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Book Review : Novel About Catskills’ Poor Lacks the Faulkner Touch

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Same Blood by Mermer Blakeslee (Houghton Mifflin: $16.95; 178 pages)

This slim first novel, which reads like a stream of subconsciousness, is set amid the impoverished lives of dirt farmers in the Catskill Mountains. While this is an ambitious attempt to portray a group of people seldom depicted in fiction, it doesn’t quite achieve the goal of making crude, rude people compelling the way William Faulkner was able to do. His characters, also economically and intellectually impoverished, were nonetheless endowed with pride and dignity.

The first two parts of the book are written in dialect. For example, on motherhood: “I ain’t got a husband and I got a kid, Bubby. He’s 3. And he wants me more’n I got to give him.” On sex: “He don’t say nothin’, just unzips his pants and pulls mine down past my knees.” On everyday chores: “Beulah was in the kitchen smashin’ shells to feed the chickens ‘cause their eggs is breakin’.”

Plot and Character

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By Part Three, the dialect is less intrusive, as though the author grew weary of the effort and focused more intently on plot and character. At the same time, in the last third of the book, the people become more real and more sympathetic, while the tale takes on a life beyond a mere chronicle of misery and survival.

There is another aspect of the plot that lifts it from its vulgar milieu--occult connections between the living and the dead, between human and beast, between one person and another.

Margaret Becker seems to have the ability to take into herself diseases that are killing people she loves. When her little son’s life ends, it seems to be because a well-meaning social worker forced her to stop nursing him and that connection to her breast had been all that was keeping him alive. When her beloved foster mother grows weak with cancer, Margaret pulls the cancer into her own body. When a mute and starving little boy is brought to her, a substitute for her lost son, she exorcises the demons that kept him speechless.

Meanwhile, there are long passages of such trivial content as an evening of watching television and commenting on Vanna White’s wardrobe, as Margaret and Jo (the town whore who is Margaret’s lover) get drunk on beer. Or the evening Margaret spends in the local saloon after punching out a fellow who insulted Jo.

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Terrible things happen, such as a man’s rape of his girlfriend’s 9-year-old daughter. In this episode, Margaret hugs the child’s mother--"Those skinny arms clutched me sump’n wicked"--and suddenly realizes that the mother hates the child as well as the rapist: “She didn’t want me to know that she hated Debbie, too, in with it, but I knew. I felt it come toward me in that clutch of hers, her hate--how it come I almost saw it.”

Light Bulbs Go On

These characters don’t seem to think, exactly, but concepts or realizations enter their minds full-blown every now and then.

The bizarre connections are vividly portrayed, with people or ghosts pulling each other into death or back into life, or sucking into themselves the demonic illness of a loved one, or staring into a cow’s eyes and becoming able to see the world from the animal’s point of view.

Also well-drawn are the realities of welfare visits, minimum-wage jobs, dirty yards and rusty cars, strangers becoming family and families becoming strangers.

One chapter involves a night of killing a foraging army of porcupines. This is done by “gittin’ the back of the porcupine’s neck with the potato hook, then draggin’ him out to where he’s right in front of you, flippin’ the potato hook over and smackin’ him on the end of the nose with it,” all night long, one after another.

This is a strange novel--messy and squalid, but provocative.


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