Excerpt provided by Syndetics
<anon I1="BLANK" I2="BLANK">1 I tried to be a good boy. I didn't speak unless spoken to, and when I did speak I called men "sir" and women "ma'am." I said "Please," "Excuse me," and "Pardon our appearance while we renovate," placed my napkin in my lap when I sat down to eat, dropped my eyes when I caught people staring. By the time I was three I'd given up fingerpainting, used brushes instead, but only the ones my mother discarded, and only at the most distant edge of her work table. If I remember anything from my preschool days it's this: my mother perched at the far end of those six rough-sawn planks whirling a disc of clay before her like a captain in her stern--a stern captain, I can't resist saying--while I gadded about the prow, a gaudy figurehead stabbing his brush against the canvas as though trying to slice it open. When I'd finally conceded that I couldn't make things any better--or, at any rate, that more paint would only make them worse--I closed my easel and ferried my supplies to the back of the apartment, where an enclosed porch hung off the kitchen in a crazy parallelogram, its floor slanting almost as much as its roof. I hooked my palette on one nail, hung my apron on another, then mounted a severed section of ladder (itself a rickety affair, its rungs twisting beneath my feet like a strand of DNA) in order to wash my brushes in an industrial-sized zinc sink nearly as deep as I was tall. Only after I'd cleaned and stowed everything did I go back for my painting. I was no one's idea of an artistic prodigy but as a critic I was more precocious, by which I mean that even at three, four, five years old I recognized that the colors and shapes I'd chosen to combine were as incongruent as peanut butter, jelly, and mayonnaise smeared on the same slice of bread, and after a glance down the table for a reprieve from my mother--who probably hadn't realized I'd left the room, let alone that I'd returned--I folded the wet canvas closed on itself, less like a sandwich than a book I'd abandoned, a story that could no longer pique even the most abbreviated narrative curiosity. Close the Aeneid after Dido "calls it marriage" and she and Aeneas stay together forever, if you never crack the cover again, if you can convince yourself that the story belongs not to posterity but to you. I wasn't that strong. I painted every day for three years until finally my mother stopped giving me supplies. Even then I pressed on, diluting my pigments and painting on the halved versos of discarded canvases, the images growing smaller and smaller and fainter and fainter, until at length the only thing they depicted was my desire, and its failure to fructify. It's a dubious gift to be able to envision something without also being able to make it. One wants to say it's the teacher's burden, or the writer's, or the male of the species'--his "burthen" I suppose I should call it. No doubt my dilemma was made more palpable by virtue of being Dixie Stammers's son. My mother never paid attention to what people said about her work, cared only about what she made and how closely it corresponded to what she'd set out to produce. I'd be lying if I said I didn't internalize that lesson from the time I was tall enough to recognize myself in a mirror, or at least until my mother replaced all the mirrors in our apartment with oxidized substitutes that reflected little more than shadows. It's not just that I thought of myself as a terrible painter: I thought of myself as a failure. In this regard, at least, I was my mother's son, and a budding Academy man to boot: I was interested only in what I could make paint show, not what it might show me. I've never looked at clouds and seen anything other than water vapor, and I've never been bothered by this. The fact that dihydrogen monoxide molecules clot together in denser and denser masses until finally precipitating in any of a half dozen different forms (my favorite being virga, the rain that falls but never touches the ground) seems to me more worthy of study than spurious fantasies that tell you only about the viewer, not what he's looking at (although I suppose having a favorite kind of precipitation is its own projection, its own confession). They filled our heads with a lot of nonsense at the Academy, outdated, esoteric, idealistic fantasies that now seem as remote to me as the school itself, but one lesson that's been hard to shake is the idea that the world doesn't exist to elucidate you: you are the world's elucidation, the only proof of its existence you will ever truly know. COGITO SUM is the inscription over the campus's front gate, I think I am the letters carved into an anthracite revetment mounted in a bluestone Gothic arch, as if truth were only as durable as the rock from which (into which?) it's chiseled. I'm pretty sure the tablet was just a goof on the part of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, yet it stands as a measure of Academy belief in the literal meaning of words that I never once heard master or novice suggest there might be more than one way to read Great Grandpa Marcus's bowdlerization. A carriage horse needs blinkers because it can't keep its eyes on the road, a parrot forgets the sun is out when a curtain is draped over its cage, but an Academy man acknowledges only what is , and is misled by neither camouflage nor distraction. Maybe this is just a roundabout way of saying that I lacked any artistic talent as a child. But what I want you to realize at the outset is that abandoning my brushes was an ethical decision, not an aesthetic one. I gave up painting because I wasn't good enough--not good enough for me (or, for that matter, my mother), nor even good enough for painting , but good enough for the world . There were simply more worthwhile things I could be doing with my life. For example: cleaning, a venerable vocation central to the Academy's founding, and one that, in a house like ours, required a certain level of imagination to see how such a seemingly impossible task could be realized. Before she moved into our apartment my mother had lived in a six-bedroom mansion furnished with 150 years of family heirlooms. She claimed to have left most of that "Queen Anne garbage" behind, but our apartment was still crowded with sofas and chairs, bureaus and china cabinets pushed right up against each other like furniture in a junk shop. Ours was a house of pyramids, every reasonably flat surface stacked with boxes and baskets and bowls, tapering towers of pillows piled on foundations of folded blankets or yellowed newspapers and crowned by balls of yarn or rag dolls or smooth gray river stones, ziggurats of belted leather cases sporting vases filled with long-dead flowers or velveteen bags jumbled with tea lights and loose change and matchbooks and mismatched gloves. So there was no way the place was ever going to be neat. But it could at least be clean. Such was my epiphany, anyway, when one day in my first year at the Academy I walked into the apartment and saw more or less simultaneously the encrustations of clay that the wheels of my mother's stool had ground into the floor and, hanging off the wall above it like a superannuated relic, an antique push broom whose straw bristles had been worn nearly to the nub. We'd been to the Lake that day. While the other boys stripped off their robes and jumped into the frigid water I sat on the bank and pretended to listen as Master McCauley told me for the tenth or hundredth time how my great-great-great-great-great- grandfather had made it "his life's mission" to "cleanse the waters" before me from the residue of a half century of coal mining, an act of "environmental largesse" from which the Academy had been born. Faint splashes came through the bathroom door, along with the sound of something classical sawing out of the radio my mother kept in the window ledge above the tub. I hung my gown on a hook next to her smock, pried the broom from the wall in a shower of plaster (it turned out to have been nailed in place) and, almost idly, began pushing its stubbled surface over the pale dried clay. I was thinking less about Great Grandpa Marcus or the crystal-clear waters of the Lake than about the bare smooth skin of my classmates as, one by one, in graceful dives or cannonballs or crookedly spoked limbs, they splashed off the end of the dock while I squatted beneath my tented robe like a thick-shelled tortoise who'd long since renounced aquatic life. The broom did little more than score staff lines across the clay's surface, so I grabbed one of my mother's palette knives and used it to shiv up the mess instead, turning it edgewise to score long-dried filaments from the gaps in the parquet. A dozen times I stopped and swept the sticky crumbs onto a square of old canvas and carried it back to the trash can on the porch. A trail of gray footprints marked my progress like the steps to a rhythmless, frenetic tango, but somehow I didn't think of them as evidence of the futility of my labor, but, rather, as proof of how hard I was working. In this regard, at least, I was Marcus's kin, though it would be years before I realized it. I'm not sure how far I got that first day, but I was at it again the next, and within a month or two had worked out a method that was to serve me for more than half a decade. I set to as soon as I got out of nones or, if I'd been at the hospital that day, as soon as my taxi returned me from Wye. I realized pretty quickly I had to begin with the ceiling or all the dust I dislodged would settle on the floor I'd just cleaned, and so I started at the top, coaxing spiderwebs from high corners with a dry mop, feathering lint from Murano glass chandeliers and crown moldings, whacking curtains, dry-wiping picture frames and faded patches of wallpaper and wainscoting, until eventually I'd made my way to the floor. I scraped up the worst of my mother's clay first, then began shifting the furniture around like the pieces of a sliding puzzle in order to attack the smeared, scarred parquetry one latticed diamond at a time, scrubbing and mopping and buffing each exposed square with beeswax and sheepskin until the whole floor (or at least the minuscule portion that could be seen at any given moment) glittered like snakeskin and exuded a rich smell, leathery, fecund, warm. I sorted the glazes by hue then, weeding out and washing the empties, turned the grayware in the windows so it would dry evenly, and concluded each day's labors by handwashing my mother's smock, which couldn't go down with the rest of the laundry because Mrs. Brown said the clay would gum up her machine--the only thing in Marcuse besides herself and Mr. Brown, she liked to joke, old enough to have watched Abraham Lincoln sign the Emancipation Proclamation on the evening news. The gray scum from a thousand unconscious swipes of my mother's hands across her lap had dried in a flaky circle as big around as a pizza, leaving the blousy garment looking like a snow angel that'd been gut shot. I cradled the corpse in both arms so the clay wouldn't crumble onto my clean floor, walked on tiptoes and tenterhooks all the way back to the porch, where I unceremoniously drowned the smock in the sink and ground the soiled cambric into a washboard until every last speck of clay had been abraded away. I rinsed the sink and refilled it then, added a quarter cup of phosphate-free laundry detergent and two tablespoons of caustic soda. The lye stung my skin like chigger bites, turning it a florid salmon that melded with my birthmark where it cobwebbed across the back of my left hand, and sometimes the skin split and bled along the seam between purple and pink. (For a few months when I was seven I thought that if I used enough lye my birthmark might actually peel off, but though the cuts grew deeper, and burned and bled for hours, the only thing that ever fell off were two fingernails on my left hand, after which I took to wearing rubber gloves.) When the smock was finally clean I wrapped it around a steam pipe in order to wring the water from it, braiding the two halves together like one of Mr. Brown's Easter loaves, then hung it on a hanger, shriveled but spotless, and needing only a pass with the iron before matins to complete its resurrection. Only then would I pull out a box of macaroni or rice for dinner, a jar of some sauce or other, salad vegetables to keep what Mrs. Brown called "the crickets" at bay. I set plates and forks on the table, stood a wine glass at my mother's place, a cup of psyllium husk at mine, and when Mrs. B. came upstairs with the groceries I accepted today's full bag for yesterday's empty one, upon which I'd written what we needed for tomorrow. Excerpted from Night Soil by Dale Peck All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.</anon>
Reviews provided by Syndetics
Library Journal Review
Narrator Judas's way-way-great-grandfather was a corrupter of man and nature, a coal magnate with wealth built on slave labor (sometimes deadly) and founder of The Academy, proffering an offbeat curriculum to black students. Judas's negligent mother is a wealthy and renowned potter whose pots are, amazingly, always 100 percent like all the others. His father is a departed mystery, solved late by a remarkable plot twist. Young Judas has no doubts about being gay, but he has doubts and opinions about everything else. There isn't much story here. There are, however, many digressions, often lengthy-about society, philosophy, sex, art, history, etc.-and the book ends with a 30-plus-page "parable." In short, the novel meanders. The writing is almost flawlessly brilliant, which can lead to either inspiration (as in, e.g., nature descriptions) or disgust (a gas station restroom comes to mind-scatology alert!). Most everything is explicit here, notably the gay sex, which may well shock some. But Judas is charming, erudite, observant, witty, and mostly worth listening to. Readers will want a large vocabulary and reference-base (or ready access to Google). VERDICT Turbo-charged writing and an ambitious exoskeleton, but the design exceeds the product. Mixed bag.-Robert E. Brown, Oswego, NY © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.