Edmundo Paz Soldán: Los vivos y los muertos [The Living and the Dead]
In the 1990s the town of Dryden, New York, had nine fatalities within the space of three months, seven of which were murders. These have been written about extensively, particularly by Jean Caroll. This novel is a fictitious story based on those events. In the afterword, Paz Soldán states that, at the time, he was living in Ithaca, twenty minutes away from Dryden, so these events had an effect on him, particularly as most of the victims were adolescents. He initially planned to write a journalistic article on the topic but, later, when he was living in Seville, he found it had become a novel, with different characters, and had become, as he states a meditation on loss.
It is set in the fictitious town of Madison and each chapter is told by a different participant in his or her own voice. The story starts with Tim, the (very slightly) younger of twins. His brother is Jeremy. Jeremy has always been better with girls and, on occasions, he will seduce a girl, have a brief fling with her and then pass her over to Tim. Indeed, the twins are so close in appearance that few can tell them apart and they sometimes deliberately deceive the girls. On this occasion, Tim plans to go and visit Lucy, as Jeremy cannot be bothered to go and see her – he is playing a video game. He sets out in the car. Only later do we learn that he is killed in a car crash on the way.
Tim has also had a fling with Amanda, one of the top cheerleader girls and leader of a group known as the Superpower Girls. He had pretended to be Jeremy but Amanda seemed to realise but did not really care. She is just one person upset by Tim’s death. Another is Hannah, a fifteen-year old girl who lives near to the twins. One night she is late changing after cheerleader practice and there is no-one to take her home. Suddenly, she hears someone coming. It is Tim. Or is it Jeremy? She is not sure but is happy to get a lift from him. On the way home, she gives him a blow job. She assumes it is Tim so she is particularly devastated by his death, so much so that she stays in bed for a week. She is now in love with Jeremy. Jeremy is on Xanax for his depression. She is not the only girl at Madison High to have a casual sexual encounter with Tim/Jeremy.
However, what is key to this story is the hidden problems behind the people. We learn about Neil Webb (only later do we learn his first name). He had been in the US Air Force in Spain but had been sent home after sexually assaulting a Spanish woman and dishonourably discharged. He now cannot find a job. We learn from him that he lusts after the fifteen-year old Hannah, and from his youngest son, Junior, that he has porn magazines, that he sexually assaults and beats his wife and brutally beats his sons, particularly the eldest one. Hannah’s father had been humourless and strict and Hannah had never been good enough for him. However, he had died and her mother remarried, though Hannah seems to get on with her stepfather, Steve. The mother of Jeremy and Tim had run off with her high-school sweetheart and left them and her father. Jeremy dreams of having a mother like the actress Julianne Moore, whom he sees in a film. Even the reporter, Daniel, who covers many of these events for the local newspaper has his own problems as his wife, Alicia, has left him and wants a divorce. He has a photo of the couple kissing as his computer screen background.
There are, as in Dryden, nine deaths in total: four murders, three deaths in car crashes and two suicides (both by the two murderers). The murders – two each – are definitely sexual in nature. Indeed, they seem to arrive from an unrequited but somewhat perverted love. Paz Soldán spares us none of the details, as he describes how the two (completely) separate perpetrators plan their actions and commit the murders. The car crashes of the two twins are only mentioned in the past, with limited details, though the final car crash – caused by the driver being very drunk – is described in somewhat more detail. In addition to the murders there are other unpleasant events. One girl, who should have accompanied the first two murder victims on the night they were killed, feels very guilty about it and frequently cuts herself after the event. The school guard, Peter Woodruff, is later accused of sexually assaulting a student and flees.
As mentioned, Paz Soldán has said this book is about loss and, indeed, many of the characters do quite understandably mourn the loss of the various victims. However, there seems to be more. The two murderers are both sexually obsessed with women younger than them. The casual sex indulged in by the students is, presumably, quite normal for adolescents and not only in the US. However, it generally seems to make them – both sexes – totally miserable. Indeed, it is difficult to find any couple in a sexually happy and compatible relationship. Drugs are slightly an issue, as both marijuana and cocaine use is fairly common but, again, this is not unusual and not only in the US. Is it, nevertheless, a criticism of the US, as it was in the 1990s and later? Neil Webb, not a man given to self-knowledge, comments that the Spanish thought that all Americans were like George W Bush. Irak había demostrado toda nuestra arrogancia e incompetencia [Iraq had shown all our arrogance and incompetence], he says. Amanda states Nuestros hijos no son nuestros hijos, nuestros padres no son nuestros padres, nuestros amigos no son nuestros amigos [Our children are not our children, our parents are not our parents, our friends are not our friends], while the general view is that they are all living in a Stephen King novel. In short, this is a community torn apart but, even before the deaths, it is clear that things were not going too well between the various characters.
While certainly a grim novel, it is an interesting study in a community which, initially, seems not much different from many other such communities in the country but, on closer examination has underlying problems and tensions, which will later come out. Indeed, the only really serious problem before the deaths, concerns one of the neighbours, a man who is under house arrest for drug issues and has spent some time in jail but who never becomes invovled in the later events. Loss is certainly one of the subjects but not, in my view, the main one. The book ends with Amanda talking to herself and telling herself that what she really has to do is get out of Madison and maybe that what the message of the book is about – small towns, particularly but certainly not only small towns in the US, are dangerous places to be.
First published 2009 by Alfaguara
No English translation