LYING WITH THE DEAD by Michael Mewshaw

Book Quote:

“Her worst sin, it crosses my mind, may not have been her foul temper, her vicious mouth, or her relish at smacking around me and the boys. Her worst sin might have been her conviction that she had the right to bully us into doing her bidding right up until the end.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody (JAN 14, 2010)

Lying with the Dead by Michael Mewshaw is a novel about a dysfunctional family but it is also much more than that. It is a Greek tragedy, a morality tale, a story about the conflicting and diametrically opposed emotions that grip us all, and a novel about sibling love. The novel unfolds in chapters told from the points of view of each of the children – – Quinn, Maury and Candy.

Quinn is the youngest child in the family, born as an afterthought or mistake. He has managed to escape his mother’s tendrils by moving from Maryland to London where he works as a successful actor. He is a good son in that he sends money every month to support his mother, and he calls home weekly. He does like to dip into the booze more than is good for him, but then again, liquor can assuage pain and keep some of his demons at bay. Currently, he has been court-ordered to see a therapist due to anger issues.

Maury has Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism. He lives in California where he helps out in a trailer park. He has been released from prison after serving twelve years for his father’s murder. As the family story goes, he saw his parents fighting (again) and he couldn’t take it anymore. He picked up a knife and his father just walked into it. The knife pierced his belly and killed him.
Maury keeps “track of my memories in the box in my head. This box in my head is big, with dozens of drawers.” He never opens the drawer that has memories of his father’s murder.

Candy is the parental child, the caretaker. She is a survivor of childhood polio and walks with a limp due to one shriveled leg. Forever, she has put everyone’s needs ahead of her own and she is now the primary caretaker for their elderly mother. Candy has a lover now and is waiting for her mother to die, or go into assisted living, so that she and Lawrence can retire in North Carolina.

The children know that they must obey the family rules of shame, secrecy, and silence. “Dad’s murder, Mom’s mood swings, Maury’s crime – – there were so many things I was compelled to stay mum about.” “Maury and I had been raised as close-mouthed as a Mafia clan.” The family is laden with secrets, and one after the other get divulged as the novel progresses. As secrets come out, Mom plays one child against the other, asking each child not to tell the other about what she’s told them. What she says is often toxic and Candy states, “I don’t want to hear. I clap my palms over my ears.” Mom also has trouble with boundary issues. One minute she may be discussing issues of mundane daily life, and the next minute she is telling her children about her sex life with their father. “Alternately an Irish Catholic prude and an outspoken bawd, Mom has always had this cringe-making habit of sharing more information than anybody, especially her children, care to hear.”

What is the best way to describe mom? A piece of work, a she-devil, a monster, an evil and manipulative bitch, a cruel and heartless woman, a struggling single mother who is doing the best she can? All of these descriptions are true but none really get at the core of her ability to do harm to her children. At one point, Quinn reads an article from the “New York Times science section that examines the maternal instincts of animals. Its conclusion: cannibalism, abuse, abandonment, and neglect are motherly coping mechanisms.” He asks himself, “Is this the explanation for Mom’s cruel and contradictory behavior. For the way she alternately blessed and blasted me?”

From the time they were little, none of them could predict Mom’s actions. She was just as likely to act fiercely loyal and defend their actions as she was to slap or beat them. Dad was an inveterate gambler who came home late or didn’t come home at all. Mom’s mercurial temper and unpredictability were the ruling emotions in the home. “In winter she’s too cold. In summer she’s too hot. If it’s spring or fall, she hates the change of season.” This is a woman who is always unhappy and chooses to take her emotions out on whoever is closest to her at the time. As Quinn realizes, his mother is “clinically disturbed and dangerous. I didn’t know how to deal with it back then. I don’t know now.”

The children want to put Mom in an assisted living facility and she refuses. “Won’t do a damn thing any doctor, lawyer, priest, social worker, therapist or her own children recommend. She means to die as she has lived – – strictly on her own terms. To hell with everybody else.” In order to ward off or postpone Candy’s efforts to place her in assisted living, Mom decides to call all her children home so that she can reveal important secrets to them. She tells them that they need to come home to hear her deathbed wishes. This is her “final request.” As the children convene in Maryland, the dynamics become heated and desperate. As Quinn so aptly quotes from the Oresteia, “I know the ancient crimes that live within this house.”

Michael Mewshaw states that this book “has its origin in specific childhood experience that shaped the man I became.” In this sense, it is partly autobiographical. He is also interested in “murder and its ongoing effects on a family, the Greek tragic cycle of hubris, nemesis, and catharsis.” In this novel, he has painted a Mother who is not only a feared matriarch, but has a personality and traits that bring to mind both Medea and Clytemnestra.

Mewshaw brings his characters to life, with all their struggles and challenges, foibles and fears. His characterizations are so realistic that the reader feels like they are present in the room, like an eavesdropper right outside the door. How each of the children deals with crimes of the heart, as they try to relate with their mother for what is possibly the last time, makes up the heart of this deep and wonderfully readable novel. Mewshaw has a great gift for describing that place between “kidding and almost crying.” What at first sounds funny is often a statement of pain and cruelty. This is especially true of his descriptions of Mom, a Mom who “just keeps hacking away – – cutting you off at the ankles and the knees until you don’t have a limb to stand on.” Without these limbs, her children still crawl if they have to, never giving up in their efforts to connect with their Mother and each other in some intimate way. What stands out, is the strength of the human spirt and the infinite ability to cope despite all obstacles.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 39 readers
PUBLISHER: Other Press (October 6, 2009)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Interview with В Michael Mewshaw
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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January 14, 2010 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , ,  В· Posted in: Contemporary, Family Matters

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