His latest novel, “The Pallbearers Club,” continues in the macabre vein but adds the dimension of quasi-autobiography. As Tremblay says in his afterword, regarding protagonist Art Barbara, “To be clear, Art Barbara is and isn’t me. Well, fine, he’s mostly me!” The book is set in Massachusetts and Providence, R.I., Tremblay’s own stomping grounds. As it happens, this portion of the country is also my backyard, so I can testify to the verisimilitude of Tremblay’s portrait of this place from the 1980s to nearly the present day.
Who is Art Barbara, and what is his story? Before revealing that, we should talk about the presentation of the book. We are led to believe that this is not Tremblay’s composition, but the found manuscript of Art’s memoir. A familiar enough conceit. But, to compound the layers of narrative, we discover that the manuscript has been annotated by a woman named Mercy Brown. She interjects whole pages worth of commentary at crucial points, directing her criticism, handwritten in red ink, at Art. The dual and dueling narrators lend the events of the book a high level of indeterminacy that proves both mysterious and entertaining. As with Nabokov’s “Pale Fire,” our understanding of the story is complicated by Mercy’s contradictory testimony.
We first encounter Art as a high school sad sack in 1988. “Nerd” or “slacker” or “eccentric” would be a step up for him. His home life is dismal, and he has no hobbies or passions. Fairly smart and adroit with words (his memoir is replete with startling metaphors and deft storytelling), he is intent on accumulating resume material for his college applications. So he starts the “Pallbearers Club.” Basically, he envisions a squad of student interns who stand in as mourners during the lonely funerals of the unwanted. The scenes at the funeral home that sponsors the students offer plenty of black comedy: “We made it off the stairs [with the casket]… I was not fine. My vision blurred and uninterpretable inkblots encroached at the edges. My head filled with damp peat and moss, and my ears rang as I sank into the bog of myself… One of the men in black suits said, ‘You look blue,’ and the other added, ‘More greenish. Like he’s seasick.’ ”
It is at this creepily emotional venue that Art meets his lifelong nemesis/companion/dark shadow, Mercy Brown.
Mercy shares her name with a real-life Rhode Island resident, whose body was exhumed in 1892 by villagers who believed she was a vampire. This knowledge puts Art on alert. Is he — and are we — to believe that 1988 Mercy is that same creature? A girl in an army jacket full of pop-culture pinback buttons, who turns Art onto punk music? Very unlikely.
And yet, with the entrance of Mercy, Art’s life takes a decided turn into occult realms where inexplicable things happen. When Art looks at one of the “standard” photos Mercy takes of an open casket, “there was a green blob on the film and it hovered over the dead woman’s chest.” Later, Art watches Mercy sleep and notices that a blanket coiled around her wrist “pulsed liked exposed musculature made of a glistening, convoluted network of connective and vascular tissues.”
Art comes to tolerate and even welcome these tedium-diminishing thrills. But the two teenagers eventually have a falling-out, parting in a spooky way.
Art grows up, becomes a C-list rock musician — finally attaining a bit of the cool hipster vibe he had always longed for — and then, close to the present day, Mercy shows up again. It is at this point that Art’s life truly spirals out of control. He abandons his career, friends and personal hygiene, and falls prey to paranoia. Is this cascade of bad luck his own doing, or the culmination of a long-range plot? The reader is left deliciously adrift.
Tremblay’s depiction both of a New England adolescent’s life in the 1980s and the rock-club scene in the 1990s and early 21st century are vivid and accurate. He limns Providence especially well (with a few nods to our native son, H.P. Lovecraft).
The main attraction of this tale is the intricate portrait of a man who is full of potential and desire and talents, but who ultimately betrays himself by a not-so-subliminal desire for failure. I was reminded of Oskar in Gunter Grass’s “The Tin Drum”: forever a stymied juvenile. Art has fashioned himself into a stunted thing to be “safe,” and yet he and Mercy are two planets locked in a mutually destructive orbit.
Readers keen on parsing enigmas of identity and reality, and those who simply relish quiet terrors and the portrait of a disintegrating mentality, will find that “The Pallbearers Club” is a welcome casket of chills to shoulder.
Paul Di Filippo is the author of the Steampunk Trilogy, “The Deadly Kiss-Off” and “The Summer Thieves.”
William Morrow. 288 pp. $27.99
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