A family of prodigal sons and daughters scramble to pick up the pieces of their once revered and established New England family in the collection of linked stories, A Faithful but Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed by Jason Brown. The linked stories lay out the process and aftermath of the wreckage of families, legacies, relationships, and even a literal ship via poignant descriptions and metaphors that leave you feeling like you too live in this small town in Maine.
At the beginning of the collection, we are given the sense that the Howland family is established and wealthy, however we are soon shown the ways in which the family is deluded in their own importance as Brown shows us the financial troubles building up amongst the Howlands over generations such as when John Jacobs was just a teenager, his grandparents had no electricity and could hardly afford to feed themselves. Set in the midst of an economic recession, the book follows the Howland family as their relationships, family, and legacy deteriorates.
Our most common narrator, John Jacobs, has a distinct voice that is often sardonic, especially as he grows older. We watch in the first few stories as John is in awe of his grandfather and his family legacy, but as he grows older we see him lose faith in this grand story his ancestors have built up as he struggles with substance abuse. John Jacobs’ story is often told through the jobs he is in, starting as a mail carrier, then becoming a camp counselor at a camp for foster kids, and finally becoming a community college professor.
The linked stories from different points of view allow us to know the characters and henceforth the family from several different perspectives. Some stories, such as “The Last Voyage of Alice B Toklas” make us question the narrators from previous stories. In “The Last Voyage,” John Jacobs narrates as his grandfather John Stoughton tells a stranger the partially invented story of how the Howland family acquired John Updike’s stove, making us question Stoughton’s reliability in the previous story, “Instructions from the Living from the Condition of the Dead,” when John Stoughton narrates stories about his family and his time in the military.
John Jacobs even understands that the story was false, as seen when he said “Knowing that my grandfather had never even met John Updike didn’t matter to me. I believed the story of picking up the stove, though I knew it wasn’t true. Uncle Alden had once pointed out that the old man and Updike were not even at Harvard together—once he showed me the Red Book to prove it. Uncle Alden had gone to college briefly with a friend of John Updike’s son, which was how he had heard about the stove. He and my grandfather hadn’t even gone to Pride’s Crossing—they’d picked the stove up at a garage in Ipswich,” and John Jacobs’ keeping his grandfather’s secret from the others puts John Stoughton’s stories into question.
Brown’s writing is impeccable, with each sentence flowing effortlessly into the next with brilliant rhythm and pacing. Brown manages to create characters that make us attached to them in the way John Jacobs is attached to his grandfather; recognizing their flaws while simultaneously being unable to help ourselves from playing into their tall tales and falling prey to their delusions and expectations of how life ought to be.
Brown doesn’t shy away from conflict or gritty details throughout his prose. This is seen especially in the first story in the collection, “Instructions from the Living from the Condition of the Dead,” where he shows us gruesome, high-intensity flashbacks from John Stoughton’s time as a soldier:
Now he was forced to picture the man who had wedged his head under the wall of the barn and died with his eyes open to the sky. Had he seen that? The others they found in smoldering piles by the doors. Following the trail of destruction south, they found more charred bodies inside the barracks at Kaufering. Skeletons with blackened skin stretched tight as the heads of snare drums.
We are also introduced to a conflict that much of the family faces together in trying to keep the legacy alive while struggling financially. In “The Wreck of the Ipswich Sparrow” the Howland grandchildren put a house on Vaughn up for sale, but whilst trying to sell the house Phoebe is attempting to ensure that the new owners don’t tear it down, bring back important heirlooms to her father, and reminiscing in her childhood bedroom. The Howlands aren’t an overly-emotional bunch, but we can see how much they care about each other through their actions, especially in times of tumultuous change.
As John Jacobs tells his then-fiance Melissa in “A Faithful But Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed”: “You can’t understand the family without understanding my grandfather.” So we yearn to understand John Stoughton Howland. While it seems nearly impossible to understand a man who rides a motorized tricycle, tried to pick the time of his death, have his family bury him during his granddaughter’s wedding, and potentially murdered someone, this story aims to reach that understand mainly through his other relatives, especially John Jacobs. Towards the end of the collection, we watch John Jacobs almost morph into his grandfather, telling his children exaggerated tales of his near-death experience, just wanting his children to be his audience and believe that his father is special, just like John Jacobs once believed his grandfather was.
A Faithful but Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed, by Jason Brown. Columbia, Missouri: Missouri Review Books, December 2019. 191 pages. $14.95, paper.
Téa Franco is a junior at Winthrop University pursuing her BA in Mass Communication and Political Science with a minor in creative writing. Her main area of interest in literature and writing is those stories that revolve around social issues. You can follow her and read about her journey through college, the writing world, and beyond on Twitter @teaAfranco