John Dufresne’s latest novel is hard to classify. In an age of genre fiction, a time when a novel pretty much has to be a romance or a thriller or a something even more specialized, like a police procedural, Dufresne’s Requiem, Mass . – like Dufresne’s earlier work – is simply an original. It is a sparkling blend of fine writing, brilliant story-telling, and dazzling insights into the human heart.
Set primarily in a large town in central Massachusetts, this novel explores the varying capacities for self-knowledge and relationship among the members of a highly dysfunctional family. The novel’s narrator, the grown up version of its central character – Johnny -is a writer struggling to find the thread of his next book, as well as the momentum to push it forward. He seizes upon something based on his own life (we’ll never know the exact proportions of memory and invention), and stumbles along . The narrative takes us from the time of “his” mother’s mental breakdown (not the first, but perhaps the most memorable) into Johnny’s early teen years in abundant detail, tracing only briefly the adult decades that bring him to his writing life in South Florida and to the current project.
Though it is true, as many reviewers have agreed, that the book is often hilarious and witty, for this reader the dominant notes have to do with sadness, loneliness, and yearning. Dufresne describes a family in which children are neglected and even brutalized by ineffectual parents and a strict parochial school in which there are far more sticks than carrots. The mother, Frances, is lost in a world of paranoia. She believes that her children are often replaced by imposters from outer space, and she treats Johnny and his sister Audrey as threats rather than as desired responsibilities. She is simultaneously a cruel predicament and an absence, as she regularly withdraws into her fantasies or her medication. Her husband, a long distance truck driver always on the run from the madness he’d otherwise have to face on a daily basis, is revealed to be a man who has secretly fostered other families and built a world of lies. He is even more of an absence than the mother, and there is little to choose between his lies and her fantasies.
A large cast of quirky neighbors, family friends, and relatives populates Requiem and its surroundings, people who are often a solace to Johnny, even though each has his or her own measure of oddness.
Dufresne’s sympathy for his grotesques is conveyed in a style that makes sadness shimmer with promise, despair glimmer with hope, and yearning glow under the ashes of strained half-measures – incomplete gestures of recognition and concern. The author makes us feel at home in the absurd; eccentricities of character and social situation never seem beyond the realm of possibility. Human connection is everywhere longed for, feared, thwarted, and cautiously pursued.
Requiem, Mass. is also a novel of time and place. Dufresne guides us with a sure hand through the look and feel of working class America from the late sixties through the following decades. His landscapes and city-scapes are seasoned with brand names, song lyrics, and the detritus of popular culture that is so all-encompassing and so bitterly comforting.
For writers, the passages that treat the near present, the time of the book’s composition, are of special interest. Though his art mystifies, Dufresne’s portrait of his Johnny the Writer adult character is gorgeously demystifying. No one puts this artist on a pedestal, and certainly not the writer himself. The brilliant juxtaposition of what’s going on in his daily life as he pushes this novel forward, and what is going on in the re-imagined past, is a remarkable bonus.
In this novel, Dufresne’s story-telling defies strict chronology. It’s not just the late point of attack – essentially beginning with the decision to write the book. It’s the regular interface between distant past (itself not always lined up chronologically) and ongoing present. But it’s more than this. Though he might not agree, for me Dufresne’s book validates my own favorite notion of plot – it’s not ordering what happens to the character(s) – it’s ordering what happens to the reader. And plenty happens.
Requiem, Mass. is a must journey for writers who read, for readers who write, and for all who love language and story-telling.