A wrenching and layered debut novel about a gay teen’s coming-of-age in the aftermath of his father’s suicide
Colin’s family is dissolving in the aftermath of his father’s suicide. While his mother, Diane, retreats into therapy and cynicism, Colin clings to every shred of normal life. Awash with guilt, he casts about for someone to confide in: first his estranged grandfather, then a predatory science teacher. Shunned by his siblings and rejected by his homophobic best friend, Colin immerses himself in the notebooks his father left behind. Full of strange facts, lists, and historical anecdotes that neither Colin nor Diane can understand, the notebooks infect their worldview until they can no longer tell what’s real and what’s imagined. A novel of aching intensity, Some Hell shows how unspeakable tragedy shapes a life, and how imagination saves us from ourselves.
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Patrick Nathan’s short fiction and essays have appeared in Gulf Coast, Boulevard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. This is his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.
Read an Excerpt
Colin had always thought the word was parasite, but when he searched online he learned that parasitoids were a unique subset of parasites that, over time, "ultimately sterilize or kill, and often consume, the host." He wished he could see the list again — the long word his father had written before "alien," the sac thing, something about a liver. After a few days had gone by, the words emerald cockroach wasp hatched in his head, and he said them over and over until he knew where they came from, whispering to himself while Paul rocked back and forth on the other side of the room.
As part of its reproductive process, the emerald cockroach wasp delivers a paralyzing sting to its prey — the cockroaches of Africa, South Asia, and the Pacific Islands. With the roach briefly incapacitated, the wasp delivers another sting to the ganglia, targeting a precise fold of the brain. At this point, the roach is technically able to escape — no longer paralyzed — but will instead begin to groom itself as though the wasp has moved on. The wasp's venom blocks its victim's octopamine receptors, neutralizing aggressive or defensive behavior, including any desire to flee. The wasp then chews off half of each of the roach's antennae and proceeds to lead it, as though by a leash, to the wasp's burrow, where it deposits an egg on the roach's abdomen and leaves to find another roach. Meanwhile, the larva emerges from its egg, burrows into the roach, and begins its gestation process. To prolong the life of its host, the larva feeds on the least life-threatening organs first. Once the roach is hollowed out, it uses its body as a cocoon, emerging several days later as an adult wasp. Colin even watched a short video of the whole ritual — the wasp leading the roach away, Here, come with me, there's nothing to be afraid of, and the roach as happy as you could imagine a roach being, and so calm.
At the funeral the following Saturday, Colin's grandfather mentioned his black eye. "I used to get in fights when I was your age," he said as the two stood in front of a bulletin board full of photographs. He wasn't looking at Colin. He didn't introduce himself in case Colin had, over the last ten years, forgotten he existed. Instead he sipped his coffee as they looked at all those pictures of Alan — most with his children. Colin leaned closer and looked at some Christmas morning, six or seven years ago. His father was holding a boxed set of Legos. Only now did Colin remember how his father had read the back while he waited, describing the city workers and their vehicles. The bulletin board began to tremble and Colin looked down at the carpet to get himself under control. He still hadn't decided if he'd killed his father.
"I got it from my brother. The black eye." He licked a tear from his lip and turned back to the photographs, as though someone had dared him to look into the sun.
"Do you and your brother fight often?"
Colin shook his head. "Paul is retarded. I mean" — he looked at the floor — "he's autistic."
Quentin frowned at the pictures, as if he no longer understood them. "I forgot about that."
The word retarded — Colin knew better, and he knew his grandfather was ashamed, filing Colin away with the rest of the world's middle school boys. But he was different from them, and he wished he could prove he was different.
"I'm sorry about your father."
Colin hid the twitch he'd developed whenever he heard the word itself, father. When he looked up again Quentin was gone, across the parlor's entry hall. How long could Colin hide, a murderer in plain sight?
His mother was sitting on a bench by the door, surrounded by her friends and Alan's two sisters. If you didn't know them, his mother and his grandfather, you wouldn't have noticed the way he turned his head when he walked by her, how he didn't nod or smile, and it wouldn't have seemed strange. You'd have thought he was only a distant relation come to pay his respects — an old coworker, maybe, or a college professor, rather than her father. Colin watched as he continued into the main room. Piano music came through the overhead speakers, rattling on the high notes. He watched his grandfather take the row farthest from the pulpit, just inside the door. The way he laid his suit coat over the chair next to him and smoothed it with his hands made Colin's skin tingle. It made him think he was saving the seat, even though he said he'd be alone. There was family out there Colin didn't even know he had.
The night before the funeral had been long. As she read aloud from a letter that'd come in that day's mail, Colin's mother stubbed out cigarette after cigarette in a beach glass ashtray as the remains of their family sat around the dining room table. Diane had taken up smoking only two days after it happened. Colin had been heating soup in the microwave when she began coughing in the next room. It'd made him shiver, like a déjà vu you heard instead of saw — an already-heard — but it was the smell, more than anything, that made him want to fly apart in every direction, to throw dishes through the windows and overturn the table and its shingles of unopened sympathy cards. She was on the couch, cigarette in hand. Standing in the doorway, Colin thought he was the only one to scold her, to tell her she was a bad influence. Instead he put his head in her lap and cried until he fell asleep.
He watched her now as she took long, deep drags and held on to the smoke before exhaling. The smell was already familiar as the dining room gathered it up against all its clefts and furrowed places. He held his breath and wondered how it felt, but he knew he'd never try it. It was too hard to not picture it as his father's ghost, grey and shape-shifting, pulled into you and drawn out again like it was looking for something. Why did the gun go off? it wanted to know. Why did I die? It wouldn't stop searching until it found the answer, billowing out between his mother's lips. Someday that ghost would find its killer and wrap its tendrils around his neck.
"I just don't think he should come," Diane was saying, glancing over the letter again. "I haven't talked to him in ... oh God, four years? It's too much at once."
"Where does he live?" Colin asked.
"In town. Over in Minneapolis."
"So he's not coming a long way?"
"No. Not at all. Why's that important?"
Colin took the letter and looked for clues that might reveal their relationship, his father and his grandfather, but there was only sympathy — no memories, no stories, no affectionate names. Colin traced the signature — an elaborate Q followed by a jagged line. It made him think of a seismic reading or a heart monitor.
He could feel his mother watching him. "I don't know what to do," she said.
"I don't get what the big deal is," Heather said. She put her phone in her pocket and collapsed onto the table, her head resting on her arm. She spoke into the wood and Colin felt it in his elbows. "Are we supposed to hate him? I know it's been like ten years but I don't remember him being, like, deformed or anything."
"Don't start," Diane said.
"Don't start what? I'm just saying he's not this horrible monster. He obviously wants to pay his respects or whatever."
"Please, Heather. I don't need to hear this."
Heather pushed herself away from the table. "Fine. Do what you want. I'm going to my room." She reached over and thumped Colin's head with her knuckles. "And don't bother me."
"I wasn't going to!" He swung at her, too late, and called her every name he could think of as she slipped through the doorway.
Diane waved her hand in the air as though she'd made Heather disappear. "Just leave her alone." She lit another cigarette and spoke out of the side of her mouth. "If she wants to be a little — a little brat, that's her business."
She was already good at smoking, Colin decided. It'd become something he could watch without crying or even thinking of what his father had called his new habit. Right now, it helped him not think of how she and Heather had turned against each other. Nobody had laid blame but it was something you felt coming. They were waiting for the right time to say it, and it made him feel worse to know they'd blame each other for what happened, passing over the real culprit.
"Can you blow rings?" he asked her.
"With your smoke. Can you make smoke rings?" Colin dug his hands under his thighs and sat on them. He kept wanting to point at the cigarette, like some kid.
"I don't know. I don't think so." She flipped the cigarette in her hand, glancing at the glowing end. "Let's give it a shot. You're the judge — tell me how I do." With a tap of her finger she ashed into the tray between them and took a long drag, concentrating on a picture of a sheep on the far wall. She tilted her head back and blew a single, shapeless cloud, or what a cloud might look like if you vacuumed out the inside. Colin watched as she took another breath, but when she formed her lips into an O she broke out in a laugh and lost the rest of her smoke in a coughing fit. "Guess not," she said.
"Five point six," Colin said. "Promising, but needs work."
She smiled and set the cigarette in the ashtray where it sent its gnarled signal into the air. This probably wasn't true, but it felt like the first time she'd smiled all day — all week, even. It felt like something he'd given, and he let himself believe it. He needed to believe it when he'd taken so much.
Sometimes he was terrified, alone with his mother, that he might vomit out his confession without warning, with no way to control it. I loaded the gun! his mouth would suddenly say, and there'd be no way to take it back. Thinking of it, he clenched his teeth until his jaw began to ache.
Paul rocked at the other end of the table. "He needs a shower," Diane said. "His last one was Sunday night. Shouldn't have let him go that long, now that he's older."
It embarrassed him, her saying older like that and everything it meant. Colin looked down at the table to hide his blush. "I can set it up for him," he said. "If you need me to."
"Look at his hair. He can't go anywhere like that. Especially a — not a funeral."
"I can put him in the shower," Colin said, almost at a whisper.
She was chewing the inside of her cheek. "Alan used to do that."
"I can do it."
She sighed — so loud it made him flinch. "I guess you'll have to," she said. "You're the only man I can count on now." It came out almost recited, a line from a movie that had worked its way into her life. With her free hand she reached for his and traced his veins, small and submerged and more lavender than blue. All they heard right then was Paul's chair continuing to creak and somewhere the rumbling of Heather's stereo. The ash crept backward, and if it wasn't for its sudden heat next to Diane's finger, that might have become their future, sitting there forever like a painting.
In the bathroom, Colin laid Paul's pajamas in a neat pile on the counter. He'd gone back to rocking and was staring at the scale opposite the toilet. It felt like he was babysitting a toddler, and he was grateful, at least, that Paul could dress himself once you picked out his clothes. Colin felt the water. When it was hot enough he backed away and put his hand on the counter.
They could adjust, all of them. They could each learn something new.
Colin looked away when Paul stood and took off his shirt, but his eyes drifted back when he heard the zipper on Paul's jeans. More curious than cautious, he let himself watch, and when Paul pulled down his briefs Colin stared at what uncoiled. He hadn't realized how much time had passed since he'd last seen his brother naked. His heart felt wrung like a rag as he let his eyes snag in all the wrong places. It wasn't even the same color as his skin, which made it look fake, like a doll's arm fused to his flesh with a charred, wiry scar. It occurred to him that if he wanted to know what it felt like, if it was as heavy and coarse as it looked, nobody could rat him out. His own, bent painfully in his briefs, felt smaller than ever.
Paul turned toward the shower. Ringlets of steam fell over his shoulders. With this new part of his brother hidden, Colin felt like life could go on. "Go ahead," he squeaked, and coughed and said it again, but Paul didn't move. Colin told him once more that it was okay, it was just a shower, stupid, and when that didn't work he reached out and placed his hand on Paul's shoulder to nudge him forward. He was met with a shudder as Paul swung around and drove his fist into his brother's eye. Colin fell back against the door, and then both of them were screaming. When his mother knocked on the door he felt like a failure.
"Is everything okay? What's going on?"
"I don't know!" Colin shouted. He wiped tears out of his eyes. "He hit me!"
The doorknob rattled. "Open the door."
"But he's naked." Paul was hunched over and hugging his knees but Colin could see everything. His cheeks burned on his mother's behalf.
"I gave birth to him," she said. "I've seen it all."
Colin sighed and got to his feet. With one hand over his eye he unlocked the door. "What happened?" Diane asked as the hallway sucked the steam from the room. He closed the door and leaned against it, happy to have his mother between them like a shield.
"I told him it was okay to get in the shower and he hit me." He pressed his hand over his eye and wiped away a tear with the other. "I didn't even touch him and he hit me!"
Diane bent down to Paul as he grabbed his elbows and moaned at the floor. "Honey," she said. "Paul." She stroked his hair but took her hand away when he screamed. "What's wrong, Paulie?" She clasped her hands together and they trembled, held out in front of her heart.
"Honey, you have to get in the shower." The toilet gave a clunk when she sat on its lid. "It's been days and you have to get clean." She brought her hands up to her face, covering her mouth and the end of her nose. "Please," she said, her voice muted by her hands. You could tell she had no idea what she was doing.
Paul moaned again, as though that explained everything.
When they first walked into the funeral parlor that morning, everyone spent a long time staring. Even though Colin had held the ice to his face until his hand and head both ached, he couldn't escape the broken blood vessels that left a purple ring around his right eye. At first he wanted to tell people he'd beaten up a kid in his neighborhood — an older kid — but when they didn't ask, he didn't offer. Eventually, everyone stopped looking at him, and when the service started they stared straight ahead, at the pastor, at the flowers, at the body.
Alan's brother delivered the eulogy. It sounded like all other eulogies ever written, both real and made up — from those who'd died and from movies he'd seen. His uncle choked on the word brother while he told a story from when they were boys, but Colin knew it wasn't anything like the word father. All he had to do was think it — father — and it rose up in his throat like a poison. His uncle talked about the strong man he knew, almost as if he were trying to persuade them. Colin squeezed his fingers together, thinking of the last time he'd spoken to his father. He could've said something, done something — and nobody would have died. Or he could have not loaded the gun, and not killed his father, and nobody would've died, his father wouldn't have died. Father, he thought. He opened his mouth to breathe but with it came a gasp he didn't expect, a quiet moan, and his mother pulled him into her warmth of smoke and perfume. There he cried not caring who could see or hear.
After everyone came forward one by one to touch the coffin's screwed- shut lid, they closed the doors to the main room. Nobody was supposed to notice the parlor's staff carrying the body out into the hearse. Colin thought about the body, which was supposed to be separate, now, from the soul. His father's soul was the real thing, a translucent and colorless copy of what he'd looked like on Sunday night. A soul would go to heaven or hell. His grandmother once said how sorry she was that her old friend from grade school had gone to hell after swallowing a bottle of pills: "When you don't respect life, you have no respect for God." But was it suicide? Instead it would be his own soul, Colin's soul, in the years to come, dragged down into the earth's cracks and fissures, held down by these gaunt hands that looked like shadows but weren't.
Excerpted from "Some Hell"
Copyright © 2018 Patrick Nathan.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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