In Andrew Bourelle’s 2016 Autumn Press Fiction Prize-winning novel, Danny is a loss survivor haunted by the gruesome scene he discovered. His mother committed suicide with .44 Magnum, and he was the first to find her horrific remains. Memories and the last image of her, along with the absence of a caring parent, torment Danny. His father “goes to work, comes home, drinks beer in front of the TV, and then repeats the whole thing the next day.” Their neglected refrigerator offers little more than continuously restocked beer, and Danny’s absence is mostly recognized when he’s not home to move his father’s clothes from the washer to the dryer.
Danny’s older brother Craig has become his role model. Danny doesn’t fit in as well as Craig, but he’s introduced to Craig’s metalhead friends while tagging along on a search for Craig’s ex-girlfriend Gretchen. When Danny attracts the interest of Beth, he remembers that there are happy moments in life. Unfortunately, Craig’s fight with Gretchen and her new boyfriend Jamie Fergus end up provoking undue harassment for Danny.
In just a short time, Danny transitions from an invisible freshman to having other students look at him as they pass. While struggling to justify living, Danny’s previously uneventful life fills with cycling moments of gratification and agony. Danny must endure Jamie’s bullying to safeguard Craig’s escape from their mundane town while hoping to find enough optimism to reject his fascination for duplicating his mother’s suicide. Beth makes him wonder how his life had “gotten so good so fast,” but Jamie Fergus’s incessant pursuit for revenge makes living seem impossible.
Bourelle presents the troubled protagonist in a simplistic style with engaging scenes and details. Danny provides a perceptive first-person narrative interacting with his small town. He still expects his mother to be cupping coffee on the sofa when he arrives home. The cornstalks on the frozen earth “lay scattered like bones.” No one bothered to flip the calendar page in the office of the truck-stop diner where Craig washes dishes. When Danny and Beth sneak off to her house, it feels different somehow, “like her house now, not her mom’s house.” From the heavy metal posters on the wall of Craig’s room, to Danny writing on frosted windows, to the various appearances of the sky, Bourelle provides us diverse yet economical details placing us in the scene with his protagonist’s mind.
Bourelle has a keen command of pacing. Because of this economy, the narrative moves efficiently from scene to scene establishing Danny’s philosophical reflections like a movie reel. Yet, Bourelle shows discipline to slow down in Danny’s significant moments. At such times, Danny’s thoughts succumb to reactions—such as Jamie Fergus’s violent behavior, or when Danny kisses Beth. Bourelle draws us in and explores his protagonist, providing poignant details reflecting Danny’s war against the world. Still, Bourelle maintains his efficiency, never lingering on empty suspense. In Heavy Metal, Bourelle fluctuates his pace with absolute purpose.
Bourelle also provides a strong, supporting cast that bolsters Danny’s attempts to find solace; none of Bourelle’s characters appear static, since we view them through Danny. Even Jamie Fergus redeems himself despite his reprehensible antics. Though Craig is Danny’s role model, his conduct sometimes fails to arouse Danny. And as much as Beth subdues Danny’s suicidal tendencies, he realizes the uncertainty of high school romances. In one scene, Danny contemplates shooting his sleeping father. In another, he kisses him on the head. Danny is skeptical of other people’s help, assuming it’s a sham kindness because of his mother. Then, he recognizes that some of his supporters truly care. We learn a great deal about Danny, maybe finding some of our own virtues along the way.
Heavy Metal reminds me of Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War—without the maltreatment of females—since Bourelle creates a coming of age protagonist struggling to justify his existence in situations most adults would collapse under. Danny believes he is not like other people. His lack of conformity comes off as lack of caring, but Danny tells us deep down he does care, and “that’s what makes life so hard.” Heavy Metal could be categorized as YA, because of its enlightening content, but adults shouldn’t miss this one. There is an honesty to Bourelle’s work, Danny a multi-dimensional character confronting very real social issues. Aside from Danny’s remarkable awareness of his surroundings, Bourelle’s genius resides in nonlinear character development. We don’t experience a character beating the world back with a new attitude. Instead, Danny’s change moves slowly through a gauntlet of outside forces. It experiences setbacks, gets rewardingly reinforced, measured against past incidents, filtered through previous judgments, and tested against extreme circumstances. Danny’s desire to live must justify its competence and sustainability against ruin. Even after Bourelle’s protagonist endures trials, we may not be convinced Danny is safe. What we can be certain of, however, is that Bourelle provides us with an unfiltered, week-long glance into the internal strife of a very believable loss survivor.
Bourelle’s skillfully novel captures humanity that doesn’t end in a neat, feel-good resolution. Heavy Metal advocates for awareness of loss survivors. It’s novel written for thinkers, but hopefully not the last we’ve seen of Danny.
Heavy Metal, by Andrew Bourelle. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Autumn House Press, February 2017. 192 pages. $17.95, paper.
James W. Davidson, Jr. studies creative writing, philosophy, and business at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. His work has appeared in 50-Word Stories, Mulberry Fork Review, Gravel Magazine, The Bookends Review, and Poetry Quarterly. He lives in South Carolina with his wife and two sons.