REVIEW: Deep Ellum by Brandon Hobson
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Deep Ellum is more than just a novel; it’s a geography, a philosophy, a mental state, a vacuum, a calligraphy of sorrow. Brandon Hobson weaves together a stirring tale in Gideon who returns home to Dallas after his mother overdoses. Gideon’s reality is a gritty, visceral one that defies pity, yet arouses empathy due, in large part, to the candor with which he confronts the brutality of the situation. The characters are amoral and yet have a code of morality they cling to, defying definition while creating a visible contradiction. The somber tone is supported by a surreal air of drug-induced hallucinations.
We are dropped down Hobson’s rabbit hole and the gravity well rips apart the diction into poetic stanzas of absurd animalism and literary panache.
Everything is masterfully grounded by Gideon’s bleak daily routine, allegorized by winter and the Chicago he left behind:
“I didn’t tell her that in Chicago I’d walked home from work many nights in blowing snow when the wind chill was below zero and I didn’t have gloves because I’d loaned them to a girl at work who’d forgotten hers. Or how the first two weeks in Chicago I’d slept on the floor because I didn’t own a bed. I didn’t tell her I hadn’t been to a dentist in years because of no insurance. Or the times our landlord, an old Puerto Rican guy named Andres who walked with a limp, laughed at me when I asked him about the bugs in the apartment. Or how Andres made racial slurs when he fixed the bathroom sink. I didn’t mention the times I hurt my hand when I punched a wall at work because my boss threatened to fire me if I didn’t start washing my white collared work shirt and look more presentable.”
Everyone populating the world of Deep Ellum lives in the solitary confinement of his or her mind.
They all dream up strange realities. These mental excursions form the clusters that bind them together in a nebula of longing, conduits into their subconscious meanderings. As his mother says:
“My dreams are always like that, watching things happen to other people instead of doing things. I’m a born watcher, I think.”
Gideon’s dysfunctional family takes on added complexity, represented in different rhythms and the shifting staccatos that act as both paean and elegy. Throughout the book, he wears his sister’s jacket, despite people teasing him about it being a woman’s coat. Similar to twins that are conjoined by the forehead, then split apart, Gideon and his sister, Meg, share a mental conjunction, a relationship further distorted by disturbing incest that is more pronounced by the way the information is treated informally. Even when separated, his mind affixes to her, checking for her text messages like IV drips to their bond.
Gideon is an observer — distant and alienated in the existentialist sense of the word. On two separate occasions when he tries to take action and lash out against circumstance, he ends up getting a beat down. The futility of his struggle doesn’t deter his sense of motion. He’s always on the move, always moving from one place to another, as though staying still would amplify his destitution. Sorrow and loneliness won’t drown him, despite being mired in both. His longing for affection and comfort sometimes results in awkwardness as with Desiree, his downstairs neighbor. He has the chance to have sex with her, but he declines in favor of merely laying next to her. She kicks him out, so he goes up to Meg’s apartment.
“Meg was gone somewhere and I was still sort of drunk… I put on one of Meg’s jazz records, something by Chet Baker. I sat in the chair and smoked. I kept thinking Desiree would come upstairs and knock on the door. Or that Meg would text me… For a couple of hours I just listened to music and tried not to think about anything else.”
life is a somber jazz tune, neither preaching purpose, nor expounding on mistakes
, but existing in haunting intricacies that both perpetuate time and vanish within it. There are no easy conclusions, no truces, no epiphanies. Instead, plaintive melodies.
Hobson flushes out the quirky cast of characters so that each of them feels distinctly alive.
His younger brother, Bastille, has an odd assortment of idiosyncrasies like walking “in and out of rooms backwards” or the fact that after “he became the youngest contestant to win the National Geographic Bee,” he “collapsed into tears for two days afterwards because he didn’t feel happy about winning.” His mother functions more like a dying sun than a caring maternal presence, though her gruffness and her rough exterior hint at the poor masonry of their family construction. Puig, an older man with a very young girlfriend, shares one of the more disturbing revelations in the book. He misinterprets Gideon’s concern for Meg as rejection, his worst fear, and betrays a trait common to them all: loneliness, bound by the siren calls of Deep Ellum. Even when the family gets together, their voices barely resonate:
“It seemed this would be the moment of a great communication for all of us, but as walked along the fence toward the barn, nobody said anything.”
With Deep Ellum, Hobson establishes a city that is as lively as Twin Peaks, a Walden that offers little peace, no meditation, a reversal of transcendentalism. The residents don’t try to rise. They descend deeper. Deep Ellum is more than a place; it’s a condition, full of elusive answers that punctuate the unspoken questions lingering throughout it streets, calling us back home.
by Brandon Hobson