An affecting story about how relationships are builtand burnedby desperate needs and obligations
When Henry Cooper sets out on his mail route on Arcadia Street one crisp spring morning, he has no idea that his world is about to change. He is simply enjoying the sunshine as he lights up a cigar and tosses the match to the ground, entirely unaware that he has just started a fire that will destroy a neighborhood and kill a young wife.
Even though the fire has been put out, it has ignited a lurking menace in an otherwise apparently peaceful suburb. In Fellow Mortals, Dennis Mahoney depicts the fire's aftermath in the lives of its survivors. There's Henry's wife, Ava, devoted to her husband but yearning to recover a simpler time in their marriage. There's the angry neighbor, Peg, who wants Henry to pay for what he's done, no matter the costwhich ends up being grave. And then there's Sam Bailey, the sculptor who lost his wife in the fire and has retreated to the woods to carve mysterious figures out of trees. As Sam struggles to overcome his anger and loss, Henry becomes the focal point of deepening loyalties and resentments, leaving them all vulnerable to hidden dangers and reliant on the bonds that have emerged, unexpectedly, from tragedy.
With sparse and handsome prose reminiscent of Raymond Carver and early Stewart O'Nan, Mahoney's probing first novel charts the fall of a man who has spent his life working to be decent and shows us a community trying desperately to hold itself together.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Dennis Mahoney lives in upstate New York. Fellow Mortals is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
The fire and the mailman, story of their life. It’s all they ever talk about. He wishes it would end. But now it’s in the news again—Tonight, live at five—as if he needs to be reminded how it happened, who’s to blame.
Billy walks the lots between his place and the Carmichaels’, where demolition crews have razed the two unsalvageable homes, hauling the wreckage off in dump trucks and leaving a gap, like knocked-out teeth, in the middle of the block. He smells the fire all the time, ashy in the sun, murky in the rain, and though the ground is level and clear where the basements have been filled, he can’t take a step without discovering a piece of what was there. A curved shard of glass. A melted hairbrush. Nothing worth picking up but Billy always checks. The lawn is scorched dead along the sidewalk as if a giant magnifying glass had focused on the ground, burning two crisp holes with terrible precision. Arcadia Street has been desolately quiet ever since, and with the vacant lots affording a view of the woodland just behind the yards, the cul-de-sac feels closer to wilderness than any of the blocks between here and the center of town.
A trailer appeared today while Billy was out. Dull white and unattached to any vehicle, it’s twenty feet long and planted at the back of the Bailey property, right against the trees but glowing in the late-day sun. He had watched Sam Bailey, eerie in the half-light of dawn, enter the woods several days ago and stay there, out of sight and doing God knows what, for as long as Billy could wait before he had to go to work.
In the mornings, he’s still surprised to look outside and see the Carmichaels’ house instead of the Finns’. Just the other night he spotted Peg Carmichael in her bathroom, drying her hair like nobody could see her—fifteen minutes wearing nothing but a towel. It’s been the only real perk of a bad situation. He and Sheri draw the blinds after dark. With Nan and Joan Finn they never had to. The Finns were old, it didn’t matter, but he doesn’t need Bob Carmichael eyeballing Sheri, the way she walks around the kitchen underdressed. Or rather partway dressed, like she doesn’t want to bother, wearing a big T-shirt without pants, too long to show any thigh, or the brown bathrobe she got ten years ago from her first husband.
“It’s my favorite robe,” Sheri tells Billy, case closed.
Not that Bob Carmichael strikes him as a peeper. He’s a good guy, Billy likes him, low-key and easy to talk to. A weird fit for Peg. Bob’s male-pattern bald and wears a lot of plaid shirts, and when he isn’t playing ball with his two sons or working at the bank, he’s usually wandering around, fixing old bikes in the yard and waving to every neighbor he sees. Peg’s the CEO and principal broker of Carmichael Realty Company and looks it: a pantsuit-wearing woman who starts her day with a six-mile run and doesn’t slow down until bedtime. She drives an Audi, whisks the kids from school to Little League and back, is rarely without her business portfolio, and treats Billy like a man who ought to be renting. He looked her up online and most of her listings weren’t that hot, only one above $300,000. Their own house is only slightly better than Billy and Sheri’s, but he guesses with the kids, the Audi, Peg’s wardrobe, and Bob’s mid-level bank job, Arcadia Street is the best that they can manage.
Peg pulls up and Billy walks over. It’s Saturday afternoon but she’s dressed like it’s early Monday morning. She hops out without acknowledging he’s there, opens the back door, and bends into the car to get a grocery bag. All her running’s paid off. He stares the whole way over, watching when her back foot hovers off the ground.
“Need a hand?”
Peg shuts the door with her hip and looks him in the face. He’s had a lazy eye since birth; it doesn’t give him trouble but it’s there in conversations.
“How’s the roof coming along?” Billy asks.
Peg groans. The Carmichaels’ southern exterior took the brunt of the damage. They had to replace the siding and four windows, and now a portion of the roof needs work, more than they anticipated. Billy’s had similar woes, except that being downwind, he lost the siding and the underlying wall, and part of his roof actually collapsed. He’s had the roof repaired and the wall rebuilt. The rest of it he plans to do himself. He had a list a mile long before the fire and can’t get ahead, but a lot of his insurance went to preexisting debts, and labor costs are ludicrous. Just ask Peg.
“We’re getting another estimate,” she says. “It never ends. Look at this place.” She scowls at the footprints of the two missing homes. “They could have at least seeded grass.”
“I guess one of us could,” Billy says.
“Do you know how expensive grass seed is?”
She looks at him and smiles, remembering he works at True Value.
“They ought to make Cooper do it,” Billy says.
“He ought to be in jail.”
“It was an accident.”
“If I accidentally hit you with my car,” Peg says, “wouldn’t you still be mad?”
Billy laughs at her aggression, grinning at her pearls and buttoned-up collar.
“The big hero,” Peg continues. “I talked to Joan Finn. She couldn’t stop praising him. He burns their house down, offers them a guest room, snap, he’s a saint. I wonder what he offered Sam Bailey.”
“He called me up and offered to lend a hand with any repairs,” Billy says. “I said thanks, we didn’t need help.”
“You thanked him?”
“I said it with a tone.”
Peg rolls her eyes and keeps them up and off Billy.
“He called me, too. My lawyer said I shouldn’t speak to him, but honestly,” she says, “I couldn’t stop myself. I mean the sheer audacity … as if apologizing makes it better for us!”
“How’s your lawsuit moving?”
“Don’t even get me started. Suing a government agency’s like a suing a glacier. Even with a settlement it might take … what is that?”
She’s finally seen the trailer in the Baileys’ backyard.
“I guess it’s Sam’s,” Billy says. “He must be planning to rebuild.”
“No one told me.”
“I saw him in the woods the other morning.”
Billy shrugs, and that’s about all Peg can stand by the look she fires back, like it’s him who stuck a secondhand trailer in the yard.
“I’ve got to get this ice cream inside,” she announces.
He can see through the shopping bag: celery, eggplant, bottle of juice. She leaves him there without saying goodbye and he watches her up the steps and into her house, where the screen door hisses on its pressurized tubes.
Billy walks across the lot, crackling over something so charred it’s unrecognizable. TV remote? The sole of a shoe? He strolls around back and sizes up the trailer but it’s nondescript in every way; even the dents and discoloration are generic. The Baileys’ garden is still here, growing on its own, and Billy sees that the strawberry plants have already borne fruit. He checks to see if anyone’s around and picks a handful. No sense leaving them to rot. He cuts across the Finns’ and walks into his kitchen, where he puts the berries in a colander and hears Sheri coming downstairs, finally out of her nap. She works late at the diner Friday nights and sleeps past noon every Saturday, and now she shuffles into the kitchen wearing yesterday’s blouse. There’s a gravy stain right down the middle of her stomach. She hasn’t showered or brushed, her hair’s flat on one side, and she doesn’t say “Hey” or acknowledge him at all. She finds the coffee pot empty and her face gets pissy, like every pot in America ought to be nonstop full, and then she dumps the basket into the trash, drizzling out a thin line of coffee on the floor.
“I’ve got to be out of here in thirty.”
“I didn’t want to wake you,” Billy says.
He grabs a sponge and cleans the coffee off the floor. Sheri stands there waiting with a filter, sighing that she can’t get around him to the counter.
“Beep,” she says, and Billy moves aside.
He sees the garbage can, coffee grounds oozing down the side, and he’s reminded of the fire-hose water and the soot. The house still stinks—smoke in the walls, in the mattress, in the ground outside, and not just wood smoke, either. Burnt tar. Melted siding. A headache stink that follows him around, in his clothing and his nose. He even smells it on Sheri.
“I talked to Peg,” he says. “Henry Cooper called her, too.”
“Good for Henry Cooper,” Sheri mutters.
“Yeah, the big hero. Like apologizing makes it any better.”
“Why wouldn’t it?”
“If I didn’t mean to punch you in the face, wouldn’t you still be mad? He’s sitting home getting paid, for Christ’s sake. Meanwhile look at us. Look at how we’re living.”
“At least you still have a wife,” Sheri says.
She won’t stop harping on the fact.
“I got you something,” Billy says, holding out the berries.
“Where’d you get those?”
“From the Baileys’ backyard.”
“Ew, creepy,” Sheri says, pushing them away, and then she goes upstairs to get dressed without remembering her coffee.
Billy starts the pot and walks out back, where he stands with the colander and tries to spot Peg through one of her brand-new windows. The berries are redder than anything he’s seen this spring, adorable and plump, like a basketful of hearts. He thinks of Henry Cooper when he pops one into his mouth, but it’s sour and he spits it out bloody on the ground.
Copyright © 2013 by Dennis Mahoney
Reading Group Guide
In Dennis Mahoney's captivating debut novel, a community is torn apart by tragedy while one of its beloved citizens is forced to carry the crippling burden of blame. When Henry Cooper set out on his mail route one crisp spring morning, he unwittingly sparked a fire that destroyed a neighborhood and claimed the life of a local artist's young wife. In the aftermath, some point to Henry's carelessness, while others exalt his heroism. His wife is his ardent defender, but the judgment of others begins to take its toll. While the victims slowly rebuild their lives, the sculptor Sam Bailey finds it particularly difficult to see Henry as anything other than a menace who should pay for the death of Sam's wife. Exploring the complex terrain of loyalty and loss, Fellow Mortals charts the fall of a man who has dedicated his life to doing the right thing and then finds himself embroiled in a fierce struggle to understand what the right thing is.
We hope that the following discussion topics will enhance your reading group's experience of this deeply moving novel of redemption and its price.
1. Discuss the difference between a house and a home. What do our houses provide besides shelter? In the wake of the tragedy, how do the characters in Fellow Mortals find a sense of home, even in a tree house?
2. What does the novel tell us about the many ways in which humanity responds to loss? How would you have felt about Henry if you had been a victim of the fire? What are the limits on your ability to forgive?
3. What accounts for Henry and Ava's strong marriage? How do they handle their disagreements? What is their trust built upon?
4. As Sam grieves for Laura, what image of their relationship emerges? How do his sculptures help him cope with regret and yearning?
5. How did your impressions of Billy change throughout the book? Is his anger a response to the many disappointments he experiencesincluding romantic and financial onesor is his anger the cause of those disappointments?
6. Ethan and Danny provide us with a child's perspective on tragedy. How does their outlook compare to that of their parents? Is Peg overprotective or wise?
7. What is at the heart of Sheri and Billy's struggle in their relationship? What is the best solution for anyone who is in Sheri's situation?
8. In what way do Joan and Nan form a sort of "marriage"? How do they navigate uncertainty and change? When enabled them to make an unspoken commitment to sharing a household for the rest of their lives? Would you be content to set up housekeeping with one of your siblings in a later stage of life?
9. In chapter 20, Ava and Sam describe how they met their spouses. What makes it easy for them to bond? What do you think Henry's motivation was in sending Ava to be with Sam?
10. How would you characterize Henry's personality? Is he self-destructive, or is his sense of duty a good model for waging peace?
11. How does Sam's wooded landscape serve as a mirror of his mind, and of the minds of his former neighbors? What tone does it set for the novel's closing scenes?
12. Why is Ava determined to help Billy when he is injured? Why does she opt for rescue rather than revenge?
13. Were the novel's tragedies accidental? What does it take for healing to occur in their aftermath?
14. Ultimately, what does Henry teach us about the precarious nature of fate and atonement?
A Conversation with Dennis Mahoney, Author of Fellow Mortals
Fellow Mortals follows multiple characters in the aftermath of a tragic neighborhood fire. How did you keep the story focused as you approached from so many different angles?
The fire is the focus early on, since it affects each of the characters to varying degrees, but during the first draft I did begin to worry that I was overdoing it with seven alternating viewpoints. (Eight if you count Wingnut the dog, who gets a paragraph to himself here and there.) But the relationship between Henry Cooper, the mailman who accidentally starts the fire, and Sam, the victim who loses the most, was the obvious long-term focus not only for me, but for all the other characters. Later in the book, the focus shifts again, but as long as the characters were harmonized in their concerns, the center held together. The book's about a small community sharing a personal ordeal, so it felt appropriate that everyone had a voice.
Did you begin with the idea of the fire, or was a particular character or theme the impetus for writing this story?
I started with Henry, who was based on a minor character I really liked in a previous, failed novel of mine. He's also based on a few real men I've known: active, optimistic, and possessed of a strong moral compass thatfor better or worsewas more instinctual than carefully considered. Picture a person who leaps into danger to help a stranger in need, and then imagine such a person acting like that every day, in the most ordinary situations. Then I thought, what if such a man was faced with a problem he couldn't easily fix, one that required thought and patience, and, most importantly, a problem that he himself was responsible for? Would he lose hope when nothing he tried seemed to work? If not, why not? Would he harm himself or others while obsessively trying to fix his earlier mistake? That felt like a fascinating, complicated person to follow for several hundred pages. The idea of the fire came second, out of the blue, while I was entering the local drugstore.
Some writers wait for inspiration and write as organically as possible, making it up as they go, while others take a more workmanlike, planned approach to composing a novel. How would you describe your own process?
I'm becoming more of a planner. I've written books that didn't work because I followed some fundamentally broken path and couldn't recover without essentially starting over. With Fellow Mortals, I had a general trajectory. I knew the characters and early conflicts, very crudely but enough to get going, and then I always had a loose idea of what was coming several chapters ahead. Halfway through, the story had shaped itself enough so I could see what the rest of the book would be. A story shapes itself because you have to make decisions early on, and if you're following the law of cause and effect, a degree of inevitably often emerges. A character might do anything in chapter one, but once that character makes a bold decision, the action defines her, at least in that moment, and has specific repercussions. She might still surprise me, and the story might take an unexpected turn, but I can usually feel which direction things are heading. I used to worry that if I planned too much, I'd lose that organic unpredictably and the resulting story would be stilted, but I've actually found the opposite to be true. I'm much more willing to follow my instincts and take bolder risks when I'm imagining something in outline form, because why not? It's only an outline.
Fellow Mortals is most alive in the small, intimate moments of the various relationshipsmarriages, families, and friendshipsthat grow or strain not only because of the fire, but from their own inner strengths and tensions. But you also hint at broader questions of morality, duty, and life and death. The character Sam, for instance, grieves by sculpting mythological figures out of trees, which the other characters interpret in personal ways. What do you hope readers will take away from Fellow Mortals?
I hope they love the characters and feel for them, because the characters feel real to me now and I care about them alleven the violent neighbor Billy, whose point-of-view scenes were seriously unpleasant to write. My earliest version of the book dwelled too heavily on those big-ticket, universal concerns. It was pretentious and didn't work. My favorite novels, the ones that hit me deepest, tend to be low on Grand Meaning and high on well-rendered emotional detail. I want to spend time in the characters' bedrooms, overhear their conversations, question their motives, and panic or cheer when they make life-altering decisions. I wrote this book because I wanted to live with these people for a while. I have my favorites, and I've been thrilled to find that early readers do, too, and that they're often different characters. I hope it's a book that moves people in different ways, and not necessarily in ways that I intended.
What's next for you?
I'm writing a mystery-adventure about a young woman who sails for a new life in a strange Colonial America, only to wash up half-dead in a town called Root, where she has to survive supernatural weather, forest thieves who steal people's limbs, and a violent past that threatens to turn the whole town against her. The main character's name is Molly and she's an irrepressible optimist, like Henry in Fellow Mortals, and I'm putting her through loads of terrible ordeals. Aside from that, I'm going to build some furniture and cabinets, and I blog at Giganticide.com.
Who have you discovered lately?
I finally got around to reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke and loved it. I took breaks along the way to read some other books because it's that type of novel, one I wanted to live with longer, giving it room to breathe. Clarke's humor is perfectly dry throughout, she ranges from precise detail to epic scope, and the magic shifts from wonderful to droll to genuinely fearsome. I'll be a midnight buyer if she publishes a sequel. [Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was a Holiday 2004 Discover Great New Writers selection - Ed.]
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Earnest, with a lack of irony, utterly sincere. Not words you usually associate with compelling and current and vibrant novels. But they all apply to “Fellow Mortals.” Mahoney has managed to make sincerity sexy, lack of irony interesting, earnestness entertaining. And he did it all without sacrificing currency or art. The characters are full-blooded, breathing creatures. The writer’s skills are numerous and chief among them is to lead the reader to say, “I don’t know anyone like that, but based on the writing, I believe in the possibility of knowing someone exactly like that.” The writing sings. I don’t bring up the names of masters like Hemingway or Carver to in any way equate this author with them, but their spare, lyrical, unadorned style does find a descendant in Mahoney. It’s got a rhythm, a cadence, an irresistible pull. And it’s all seamless. It doesn’t feel workshopped to death, but the skill is undeniable even if it’s impossible to figure out exactly how he does it. And while we’re on the subject of characters, let’s not forget about Wingnut the dog. He’s as real, and dare I say, human (sorry about the insult, Wing) as the rest, and he even gets to co-opt the narrative here and there. But Arcadia Street is just as much a character, as is nature itself. The woods, the trees, fire – they’re obvious. But Mahoney peppers, very liberally peppers, the chapters with subtle and striking references to animals, minerals, vegetables, sounds, sights, smells, birds and plants, dark and light, cold and heat. It’s immersive and it jumps off the page. There is such a confidence and assuredness and solidity to “Fellow Mortals.” There is absolutely nothing “debut novel” about this.
Great read. Finished yesterday and I'm still thinking about the characters...genuine...human....reminds us to look at each person carefully before passing judgement (not that one should pass judgement).
This novel is a well-versed, character driven story about the everyday lives of seven inhabitants of a small cul-de-sac, whose lives are irreparably entwined. Led by protagonist Henry Cooper, the eternally optimistic mailman, Fellow Mortals tracks the lives of the characters following a devastating fire that Henry caused. The stories of the seven individuals continue to develop and evolve, with some rising through resiliency, and while others continue to let the tragedy define them. A compelling story, the reader is driven to continue to find out how the characters can, if they are able, to put their lives back together. The journey through the grieving process is complex, but skillfully detailed in this novel. An excellent read.