That title is from my Kindle notes as I was reading this story, in response to the main character, who is supposedly the devil, who says things like “Homosexuality is not flammable. You can’t burn by it alone.”, and therefore makes him approximately 9000% less devilish than many humans I know.
I wasn’t sure what to make of the synopsis Net Galley provided for this book before I received it; “Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: the year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil.” And that’s just what happens – a young, African-American boy named Sal wanders into Fielding’s hometown and says he’s there in response to a letter Fielding’s father, the local town prosecutor, published in the paper, inviting the devil to Breathed. What happens in response to Sal’s stay in Breathed, and with the Bliss family, changes the community, the family, and those two lives in particular, forever.
The story is told, poignantly and penetratingly, by Fielding: both as a 13 year old in 1984 and an adult in some contemporary-ish time Arizona. The narrative of the story makes the setting seem as far removed from today (and the 1984 that I recall, honestly) as 1884 – I often felt like I was reading about the 1950’s small town that makes up any good “all American novel,” except for all those discordant notes that made the foreign seem more familiar. In a summer where a lot of us were obsessed with Netflix’s Stranger Things, which I just coincidentally happened to be watching at the same time I was reading this, the eighties suddenly seem a lot weirder to me, even though I was there the first time.
The tone is both folksy and frightening – the kind of friendly that makes the horror of the novel feel personal and too real. This book pulls off that slow build up of tension and horror that I equate with some of Stephen King’s best: Where you just know that creepy-ass mf Pennywise is hanging around waiting for those kids, and it makes you leery enough to think about not turning the pages. McDaniel makes it impossible to not turn the pages at the very same time she makes you seriously consider never turning another one… you know disaster is coming: the author has told you, the main character keeps telling you, there’s a possibly literal devil wandering around a small town in Appalachia, either making trouble or making good… so you know that trouble is just one finger flick away, but you can’t help flicking your finger anyways. (Kindle reading is slightly less beautiful, figuratively, I’m realizing.)
The fact that this is McDaniel’s debut novel is surprising and promising – This is not just a good story, it’s a really well-written story. Like, they should teach this in schools because it’s goddamn literature, good. Read this paragraph and tell me I’m wrong:
It was a heat that didn’t just melt tangible things like ice, chocolate, Popsicles. It melted all the intangibles too. Fear, faith, anger, and those long-trusted templates of common sense. It melted lives as well, leaving futures to be slung with the dirt of the gravedigger’s shovel.
That’s beautiful. Which makes the scariness and terror all that more powerful, in my opinion… you don’t expect to see it lurking there behind all those beautiful words. Which is the moral of this story itself, honestly: “A foolish mistake, it is, to expect the beast, because sometimes, sometimes, it is the flower’s turn to own the name.” You don’t go looking for the devil in a little boy, but that’s where the people of this town find him, in so many unexpected ways. This is one of the best books I read this year, and I highly recommend you putting it on your list for CBR 9.