Ken Murray * Tightrope Books, Inc. * July 1, 2015 * 288 Pages
William Oaks is living life in a haze. To the outside world, he is a grown man with an interesting job and a caring girlfriend. But on the inside, he is a wounded boy still suffering from the traumas of his childhood. When his parents die suddenly in a car accident, William is forced to confront the reality of who his parents were and the pain that living in their house caused him.
Like William, I also grew up in a very conservative, evangelical Christian home, so I was interested to read about his experience. There is no denying that Eulogy is an incredibly dark and deeply sad book, but, unfortunately, it is also a fairly accurate representation of what life is like in extremely religious households. (In fact, I actually read the whole book mistakenly thinking it was a memoir, not a novel.)
The dynamic in William’s family is very familiar to me: the family is isolated and untrusting of “outsiders.” William is encouraged to evangelize to people his age, but not befriend them. His parents are insecure and horribly critical of just about everyone and everything. They aren’t nice to him or each other, but since William has no other social contacts, his parents are his lifeline, and their approval means everything.
Before his parents die, William is trying hard to create some distance. He tells his parents (or tries to tell them, anyway) that he doesn’t share their beliefs anymore. But the conversation, as usual, ends bitterly and with William storming off like a disgruntled toddler. It isn’t until after his parents die, that William finally gains the courage to really dig in to his relationship with them. He investigates the family stories–the stories repeated to him over and over again by both his mom and his dad—researches the facts to see if those stories are actually true. (No surprise: they aren’t). He dissects memories from his childhood in order to make sense of them and somehow move on. He rethinks his relationships with members of his old church. In other words, he ruminates. A lot. And this is what most of the book is: William pondering the past, trying to come to terms with his pain.
While I did feel drawn to William (despite his overwhelmingly depressing story), there are two parts of the book that irked me. First, there is some weird sex stuff between William and his parents that is briefly mentioned but never fully addressed. (William’s mom holds him tightly at least once a day and whispers to him, “You’re my snake. You’re my big writhing snake.”) If this had been a memoir, I would have let the randomness of this vignette slide, but, as a novel, I thought Murray should have either talked about it more or removed this small section entirely. As is, it feels like an afterthought.
Second, I really don’t like how Eulogy ends. More specifically, I don’t like how William chooses to frame his parent’s car accident as a final act of “orgiastic glee.” Again, if this had been a memoir…okay, whatever. It’s weird, but fine. But for a novel? Ugh, I get what you’re trying to say, but come on, Murray.
Ultimately, Eulogy was an intriguing read for me. I thought Murray did a pretty good job, overall, creating this character in his strange and dysfunctional world. But this book definitely took something out of me. I finished it and felt like I had run a marathon. It is just so. Emotionally. Taxing. If you want insight into the lives of a super religious, dysfunctional family, this is your book. But just prepare yourself. It makes for some heavy reading.