There was a prickly if fleeting moment in last month’s Grammy Awards telecast during the “In Memoriam” segment that honored Chester Bennington, the late Linkin Park frontman and father of six, who took his own life last July. Moments after Bennington’s face faded from the screen, the rapper Logic took the stage to perform his suicide-prevention anthem “1-800-273-8255,” the title of which is a national crisis hotline. The juxtaposition effectively cast Bennington’s death as a condemnable act in a moment of weakness rather than a tragic end to a lifetime of mental illness and trauma.
Thus is the conundrum facing suicide-focused literature, particularly those with adolescent protagonists. From the fetishism of Jay Asher’s “Thirteen Reasons Why” and Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides” to the proselytizing of Gayle Foreman’s “If I Stay,” from John O’Brien’s blaze of glory in “Leaving Las Vegas” to the melodrama of John Green’s oeuvre, novelists seek a precarious middle ground between preachiness and ennoblement, ever wary that a sympathetic character might indeed paint suicide as a justifiable route for vulnerable readers.
The setup of Patrick Nathan’s debut novel “Some Hell” reads like a particularly harsh middle school blues song. Twelve-year-old Colin has a violent, non-communicative autistic older brother, a cruel older sister, a best friend who torments him, and even the family dog has run away. He’s also grimly coming to terms with his own homosexuality, which occupies most of his head space around the time his father Alan shoots himself at point-blank range in the basement, leaving behind thousands of pages of incomprehensible lists, poems and arcane trivia penned in spiral-bound notebooks. What follows is a lumbering two years of therapy sessions, circular dialogue and improbable plot devices involving the family gun as Colin and his mother Diane struggle to make sense of Alan’s papers.
A coming-of-age tale hinges on the precision of its characters, and “Some Hell” suffers from an overabundance of central casting. Colin is a guileless daydreamer, too manipulable and superstitious to make a believable teenager. He and his friends have laptops and cellphones but filch sticky issues of Penthouse, their vocabularies riddled with four-syllable words. Diane moves like a Xanaxed robot through household scenes, her actions seeming to lack motivation despite incessant, withering self-examination. Narrative shocks — an unplanned pregnancy, a closeted relative — are haphazardly deployed, often with neither precedent nor resolution.
As Colin’s siblings gradually drift from the narrative, his and Diane’s thoughts ricochet from desperate embrace of life to visions of their own suicides, often within single paragraphs. The final act, a mother-and-son road trip to Los Angeles, captures Nathan’s worst impulses, with plodding, moody highway scenes abruptly pivoting to a queasy sex marathon in which the eighth-grader is seduced by a succession of grown men.
If “Some Hell” sputters as a bildungsroman, it is more successful as a suicide novel for its refreshing lack of judgment. Focusing less on the departed than on those who remain, Nathan convincingly exhibits the ways in which guilt outweighs simple anguish. Colin’s certainty that he could have prevented his father’s death, and that his family’s staggering misfortune is somehow a result of his own innate immorality, make a palpable hellscape of his adolescent years. Alan, for his part, is ultimately neither vindicated nor demonized, and the grieving process is rendered as one of survival rather than healing. Reprieve is momentary at best, and time, if anything, makes Colin’s wounds ache more fiercely.
The book’s finest subplot concerns a predatory science teacher, and Colin’s alternate terror of and willingness to please a male authority figure. These passages make for alert, timely commentary on the subtlety of abuse, how predators rely on pretenses of support and stability in order to stake a claim on their victims. The vague, flattened tension that imbues most of the novel amasses a rare electricity as Colin attempts to reconcile his lovesick yearnings with a raw awareness of his own victimhood.
“Some Hell” contemplates the ways in which a single event can precipitate the dissolution of the nuclear family, compounding the visceral trials of puberty with the weight of grief. Neither an after-school special nor gratuitous suicide porn, the survivors’ grappling incomprehension, self-blame and blind stabs at an elusive empathy are clear-eyed and delicately evoked. Frustratingly, the long-awaited revelation never arrives, and even the denouement is undone by a bewildering shock-comedy finale. Nathan’s characters — both the quick and the dead — experience hell, but the reader winds up somewhere closer to purgatory.
Tosiello’s writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Spin, the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Village Voice. He lives in New York City and works in technology.
Graywolf Press: 288 pp., $16 paper