By Brandon Hobson
Reviewed by Alex Franks
The fractured, center-less nature of the modern world makes the quest for meaning simultaneously a necessity and a futile endeavor. Such is the message of Brandon Hobson's new novella, Deep Ellum, a poetic work of literary fiction focusing on a man who returns to his hometown of Dallas, abandoning a life of mediocrity for a low-class existence of vibrant irrelevancy. Coping with a depressive, hospitalized mother, siblings with a host of issues and eccentricities, and his own directionless life, narrator Gideon traverses through the seedy underbelly of one of Texas' most polished cities as he explores his past and attempts to make sense of his present.
Upon the news of his mother's decline at the novella's outset, Gideon rushes home to an environment of familiar horror: his depressive mother, his ordinary stepfather, his uncomfortably close sister. The book's seedy underbelly of poverty and ignorance, with its focus upon a character intent on persevering for the sake of preservation, is reminiscent of Bukowski's literary doppelganger, Henry Chinaski, in his refusal to embark upon an existential quest in a society devoid of meaningful community. Solitude—and solitude amongst one's family and peers—serves as the unifying aspect of Hobson's novella.
There is little direct progressive plot to deal with here, though this doesn't detract from the work's merit. The novella, related in an intensely readable style, forgoes conventionality to give us the summation of one man's broken life and emotions. The effect this imparts is wonderfully successful: as Gideon muses about and encounters Dallas's more unsavory residents (the location itself—in reality—is rapidly gentrifying into hipsterdom), we are treated to a text which soon loses the impression of a novella and instead comes to feel like the letter of some forgotten friend from youth, writing perhaps not for a connection, but in the hopes of explaining himself. An odyssey of sorts forms as past and present merge to show the non-linear trajectory of a life unmarked by distinction, but yet told in a voice that is unsettling, familiar and, as it progresses, almost comforting.
Deep Ellum carefully dissects the chaos of Gideon's life to reveal the truth—or lack thereof—behind it. As Gideon reminisces about Chicago, where he worked a menial job in the food service industry, he slowly comes to grips with the concept that he has, in fact, come home again. The novella's mood is imparted through staccato sentences, which do not mimic Hemingway but, rather, evoke a sparse plainness of imagery which ultimately condemns the concept of the individual forcing narrative from life. Resolution is an unattainable ideal in this work, an impossibility. However, the work goes further, contending that even forcing the causal chain of life—the random series of memories and events—into a cohesive narrative is an impossibility as well.
This is a work populated by undesirables, by the broken and forgotten people of Middle America who seek simply to survive in a modern world that has robbed them of the most basic aspects of life and love. It's not that Gideon has his innocence taken from him, exactly; more that he regards his life with an unsettling innocence that borders on regarding all aspects of life as natural. The result, of course, makes it virtually impossible for him to condemn anything as he feels either empathetic or apathetic to all others, as well as himself.
Perhaps one of the most successful aspects of this work, though, is how Gideon's past is treated, blended into the present day story seamlessly and continually throughout the text. What's so striking about the narrative, though, is how Gideon's disturbing past is only presented to the reader and never dwelled upon. An incestuous relationship with his sister (a casual occurrence, and mentioned only once), exposure to pornography at a young age, drug abuse, pedophilia—all are related in a straightforward manner. These aren't given to us so that we may condemn the characters, or so we can better understand Gideon's mental state. Instead, it's so a realistic portrayal of the character—warts and all—can be presented.
An impressionistic text which imparts emotion rather than text, Deep Ellum is a work which embraces wisdom not through understanding, but by accepting the inherently fragmented nature of existence. The picture of an entire life is presented in the slim volume, itself neither inspirational nor wholly horrifying, but simply honest. The work feels desperately real and, upon its conclusion, one can't help but feel that Gideon and the countless marginalized others continue to live lives not examined, but experienced somewhere in an unseen part of the country, a place we know but at which we refuse to look.