Deep Ellum, by Brandon Hobson, follows our twenty-something-year-old narrator, Gideon, through the streets of Deep Ellum, a gloomy district in Dallas, Texas, which he has returned to after his mother’s suicide attempt. During his return, he must grapple with his sister, Meg’s, drug use and her mysterious and possibly abusive relationship with a man named Axel; his brother, Basille’s, crippling anxiety; his stepfather, Gene’s, determination to rebuild a relationship with his stepchildren; and his mother’s ongoing depression. Woven among these characters are encounters with the strangers he meets in his sister’s apartment building, many of whom are flawed physically, mentally, and sometimes both.
“Deep Ellum” is an appropriate name for the slim (one hundred twenty pages) novel, as the district sets the tone and mood, channeling our narrator’s dismal inner climate. Gideon is often given to melancholy observations of Deep Ellum during his frequent walks through the neighborhood, his attention always focused on the city’s random and mundane:
In front of a diner, napkins were flying in the wind. A truck, gutted and stripped, was parked on the corner of Good Latimer and Elm. Nobody was around. I stopped and took it in. For a moment, nothing seemed to move. I turned … only to see a woman limping in the street, carrying bags in each hand.
There is a melancholy to the book, both in the setting and in the narrator’s voice. Gideon seems quite passive, observing and passing along his observations in stark, declarative prose. The syntax seems intentionally simplistic, as the sentences are often short and follow a similar pattern of subject/verb beginnings:
He wasn’t in there long. He came back into the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee. He sat across from me and we both looked out the window. After a moment he was standing again … He left, closing the door behind him … He put his hood up and crossed Crowdus. There was someone else across the street. He stopped and talked to the guy and they walked away together.
While the main thread of the novel is Gideon’s mother’s mental illness and how her suicide attempt has given his somewhat estranged family members another opportunity for reconciliation, there are several other smaller threads woven throughout the book, tugging the reader along. While some of these threads were left unresolved (ranging from a tooth infection to a sexual fling) there was a specific thread that left me wanting more: Gideon’s incestuous relationship with his sister, Meg, which started in their childhood and remains ongoing. Gideon describes watching her undress, hopping into the bathtub with her, sleeping with her at night, but never reveals his attitude towards the situation, becoming his most distant as a narrator. While it’s reassuring that their incestuous relationship is not simply created for shock-value, one stills wonders why Hobson would bring such a controversial element to the book’s surface only to let it float away.
There is an element of grotesque throughout the book, particularly with the characters. Gideon encounters, for example, a woman’s child who “was sitting with his head over to one side. Blind. His open mouth collected saliva as he breathed, making gurgling noises … I saw little teeth through the mucus”. There is also Warren Puig, an older man who befriends Gideon only to later betray that friendship by revealing a deformity on his groin to him: “There was burned flesh. A putrescence of clotted skin. Mutilation. The gelatinous area of burned skin was stretched and discolored. A disfigurement.” The decay of these characters adds to the layers of decay throughout Deep Ellum. Everything about the setting, including its population, seems cold and gray and on the verge of falling apart.
Expertly, Hobson captures the anti-climatic reality of addiction and mental illness, particularly following Gideon’s mother’s suicide attempt. The dull aftermath of this is shown in Gideon’s visits to his mother and stepfather’s home, where the mother is often in bed, watching television, while the stepfather struggles to mend the broken family ties in hopes that it will help fix her depression. The slivers of desperation come through in Gene’s determination to bond with Gideon through games of chess, tossing a football, and deer-hunting. Gideon remains resistant to Gene’s attempts, however, even as he goes along with them. During the football-tossing scene, he and Gene get into a fight, failing yet again to please Gideon’s mother:
I turned my head and saw him reach down with a hand, offering to help me up, but I didn’t budge.
“Get the fuck away from me.”
He turned and walked toward the house. I could see my mother standing at the window, watching.
The book’s final pages, however, quickly shift the book into a tone of hope. The mother’s depression has lifted (for the time being), and Meg (for the time being) has left her abusive relationship with Axel. For a glimmering moment, the family locks together as a unit, and the importance of the moment is aptly conveyed through a more positive description of setting. Gideon states on the final page:
maybe we were all getting better … I no longer felt alone in the world in a way that somehow gave me a strange grace … All around us, ice was hanging everywhere, from tree branches and fence posts … All around us, ice was melting.
Deep Ellum is a novel that applies pressure early on and does not let up. It traces the dull reality of addiction and mental illness like a steady drip. One leaves the book in a somber mood (or at least, I did). Perhaps that is due to Hobson’s unflinching stare at the devastations that addiction and mental illness can inflict and the silent affects they have on family. There is a truthfulness to the book that I admire, and I found myself feeling the heaviness of this place, and those within in it, long after leaving them.
Deep Ellum, by Brandon Hobson. Calamari Press. 120 pages. $14.00, paper.
Coleen Muir received her MFA at University of New Orleans and is the recipient of the Svenson Award for Fiction, Samuel Mockbee award in Creative Nonfiction, and the Gulf Coast Creative Writer’s Award in Fiction. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Silk Road Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and The Rumpus. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she teaches. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.