Aug 19, 2015
Micro Review: Holding Ground in Mississippi: Margaret McMullan’s Aftermath Lounge
The book opens in heavy rain. While the rest of the town is securing storm shutters and stockpiling batteries, Norma is mourning the death of her closest friend, Donna, who drove off the road after a late night at a bar. The two worked side by side, first at a factory (one on zippers, the other buttons), and later in the homes of rich southern women who were always unsettled to learn the maids they’d hired are white. Norma is left alone to contend with her own drinking problem, the storm, and, now, the infant child Donna’s left behind.
So begins Aftermath Lounge by Margaret McMullan, a novel in stories that reveals what happens in people’s lives when disaster uproots them from the class dynamics, places, cultures, and lifestyles within which they are most at home. Zooming in from the “pink and red swirls” of TV weather maps and the bureaucratic language of distant reporters and federal agencies, McMullan takes inventory of what’s lost, left, and transformed in Pass Christian, Mississippi, a small Gulf Coast town, following Hurricane Katrina.
While it would be easy, in a book about the aftermath of one of our country’s largest natural disasters, to become swept up in a romanticized version of the storm and the lives impacted by it, McMullan’s characters are too complex and surprising to fall into that trap. There’s Catch, the novel’s resident loafer/handyman/anti-hero who smells of weed and gumbo, dons a Santa suit for his employer’s Christmas party, and is apt to stumble drunkenly into good deeds. And there’s the eleven-year-old boy whose mother has taken a hiatus from child rearing to chase an “academic commie” around Canada. The boy, growing up in the center of the turmoil, seeks out what’s stranger, like the longest surviving headless chicken named Mike of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not stories. And there’s the retired real estate salesman who can’t remember his address but can remember how his wife left him when they relocated to Houston after the hurricane. While often light in their take on the town’s eccentrics and eccentricities, these stories do not turn away from the heaviness of the loss. Through expert rendering of her characters and their circumstances, McMullan demonstrates how the damage following a tragedy is sometimes immediate, sometimes collateral, sometimes peripheral to the actual event.
The no-frills prose and everyday exchanges of the novel’s characters act as welcome antidote to what McMullan depicts as the often suspect language arising outside the storm’s radius. Among FEMA, television, and insurance company representatives, abstract terms like “personal effects” and “displaced persons” prevail. In contrast, survivors in these stories seek what’s tangible—a couple of spoons in a drawer now missing its kitchen, a lost neighbor. They often come up short.
In a novel describing a time and place where words can become slippery, or perhaps waterlogged and undecipherable as the masses of books one character imagines now lie at the bottom of the sea, McMullan remains grounded in the particulars of the people and places she writes.
While the novel’s characters are continually on the move, finding themselves in cities as far-flung culturally and geographically from the Gulf as Chicago and Montreal, they continue to feel the pull of Pass Christian. The town is perhaps the book’s most complex character. And like each character impacted by the storm, Pass Christian is both irrevocably changed and not changed enough by the impact. McMullan brings the Gulf Coast to life with romantic images of wide porches, sweet tea, and “bourbon-colored skies,” and less idyllic ones, too: the “Pawn, Gun, and Discount” that sells Choctaw baskets and ammo; or, post-Katrina, the boats and torn bed sheets stuck in trees.
The novel’s characters are continuously repulsed and drawn back to this town stricken by poverty, the storm, a major oil spill, but also where, on the “best nights,” you “all but forgot about the poisons in the water.” Pass Christian is home to a kind of working-class pride where you don’t want to “get … beyond your raisin’,” but you suffer the lack of what mobility allows, especially in the wake of natural disaster. In her diverse representations of the town, McMullan asks us to consider what it really means to be from a place. And how place stays with us, despite its transformations, because of the versions of us it keeps as we move on.
McMullan invites us in to an “aftermath lounge,” where the air is unsettled, the open sign is always blinking, and the jukebox is stuck on an old blues song. Locals mill about, connected by place and, now, displacement—reminiscing sometimes, sometimes wondering how to rebuild. It is an in-between space, a place to wait out, to weather, those events of circumstance—of time and place—that rearrange our lives. Surrounded by such an honest bunch of characters and their heartbreaking and heart-buoying stories, I find myself, at the novel’s end, not quite ready to leave.
Margaret McMullan, Aftermath Lounge. Calypso Editions, 2015. Paperback, 146 pp, $16.99.