Colin’s depressed father, Alan, shoots himself. No spoiler alert needed, as the suicide is recounted in the first sentence of “Some Hell,” Minneapolis writer Patrick Nathan’s darkly absorbing debut novel.
Like one of those stubbornly inclement fall days only intermittently punctuated with patches of blue sky and sunshine, “Some Hell” declines to subscribe to the “it gets better” impulse.
The application of love, therapy, insight and time’s healing quality is, in this story, a weakling against the tenacious bully that is death, shame, anger, grief, guilt.
Colin lives in Roseville with his self-destructive mother, Diane; an autistic older brother, Paul; and a pot-smoking older sister, Heather.
Nathan concentrates on how Colin, age 12 at the outset, and Diane find paths forward after Alan’s suicide in a basement office where he had been writing in journals and researching who-knows-what for more than a year. A plot circumstance leaves Colin also feeling guilty.
The bond between gay boys (Colin knows this about himself, although he hasn’t yet had any experience) and their mothers is often said to be close. Colin and Diane’s love-hate relationship, typical in many ways, is deepened by their bewilderment, anguish and despair.
At Alan’s funeral, Colin realizes “that he and his mother were alone, in their shared way.”
Colin and Diane read Alan’s obscure journal entries, finding few obvious clues as to what drove him to kill himself.
Later, Colin thinks Diane has been “doing all that she could, that she was trying her best, that, despite the inexhaustible energy of love, one person can only do so much.”
Diane enters therapy. Colin befriends his long-estranged grandfather. Victor, a middle-school science teacher, creepily insinuates himself into Colin’s damaged emotions like the world’s craftiest pedophile (not without plenty of interest on Colin’s part, however).
The novel circles the head spaces of mother and son, doing so more convincingly in the case of Colin than Diane. Nathan often gets the boy’s adolescent angst, sarcasm, self-loathing, fantasy, desires and fear just right.
If Colin seems wiser than his years, it can be explained by his sensitivity and the trauma he has suffered, including wounding treatment by Andy, his crush and best friend.
Diane flirts with her therapist, eventually tries dating and carries the lethal pistol in her purse. In the final chapters, she and Colin take a driving trip Out West.
Nathan can be heavy-handed in signaling moments when his characters sense a life change. The novel’s ending seems dramatically at odds after so much interiority. But as a meditation on grief and its aftermath, “Some Hell” is sensitive, incisive and often heartbreaking.
Claude Peck is a former Star Tribune editor.
By: Patrick Nathan.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 283 pages, $16.
Events: With Kaethe Schwehn, 6 p.m. Feb. 27, Black Dog Cafe, St. Paul.