?? A Story is a Promise: Notes on Allen Eskens' novel The Life We Buried
A Story is a Promise

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Mental Illness as a Literary Device

Notes on Allen Eskens' The Life We Bury


by Bill Johnson



The use of mental illness in Allen Esken's The Life We Bury demonstrates it as a powerful technique to create drama.

Joe, the novel's main character, has left a chaotic home to attend college. He works odd jobs as a bouncer to pay his tuition. His mother is untreated bi-polar and she self-medicates with alcohol. Joe also has a young, autistic brother that he has left behind to go to college. Except when his mother is arrested and he must either return home or take his brother to stay in his cramped college town apartment. When his mother is arrested, Joe simply tells his brother his mother is attending a meeting. Some of the meetings last for days, which the brother mostly accepts.

And soon, the mother will put at risk Joe attending college, which Joe considers his best shot at creating a new, better life for himself

Eskens starts the novel with this sentence...

'I remember being pestered by a sense of dread as I walked to my car that day, pressed down by a wave of foreboding that swirled around my head and broke against the evening in small ripples.'

This naturally creates drama around the question, what is the cause of this dread? The prime directive of a first sentence is to give the reader a reason to read a next sentence. Esken has accomplished that.

The first paragraph ends with...

'Or would I still travel the path that led me to Carl Iverson?'

The outcome of this premonition is named, Carl Iverson, while raising a new question, who is Carl?

The novel continues with this note about Joe's mother and her effect on his life...

'Or-and this is where I'd place my bet-maybe she {a high school counselor who doesn't think Joe is college material} knew who my mother was and figured no one can change the sound of an echo.'

This is a cryptic way of saying that being raised by his mother will affect Joe's choices in life, not in a good way.

In this opening chapter, Joe has traveled to Hillside Manor, a retirement home and a place...

'...with its gray walls streaked green with moss, its raggedy shrubs run amok, and its mold, the color of oxidized copper, encasing the soft wood of every window sash.'

Even the details of the environment convey illness.

Joe is at the manor because he needs to interview an elderly person for a class project that he is late to start (increasing the tension). Because so many of the inhabitants are senile, Joe needs permission to interview a prisoner who has been sent to the manner to die of cancer. Carl was sent to prison for life for raping and murdering a young girl.

In the manor, Joe has a memory of his grandfather that foreshadows learning why Joe blames himself for his grandfather's death.

'There were weeks, however, when the sound of rain splashing against a windowpane would seep into my subconscious and he would visit me in my dreams-dreams that would end with me sitting bolt upright in my bed, my body covered in a cold sweat, and my hands trembling from the memory of watching him die.'

The details of how the grandfather died and why it had such a major impact on Joe's mental landscape is revealed deep in the novel. Here the question is framed for readers to expect an answer.

Joe decides he will interview Carl, the convicted, dying murderer, but he then gets a hysterical call from his mother. In between screaming at her arresting officer, Joe learns she was arrested for a DUI and will be detox and jail for several days.

Joe must now make decisions about how to take care of his brother and continue in school. The first chapter ends with...

'A block away from Hillview, I pulled into a parking lot, gripped the steering wheel with all my strength, and shook it violently. "God dammit!" I yelled. "Dammit! Dammit! Dammit! Why can't you just leave me alone." My knuckles turned white, and I trembled as the wave of anger passed through me. I took a deep breath and waited for the throbbing in my throat to subside.'

In spite of his rage, Joe must now return home to take care of his brother and later deal with his mother and her latest boyfriend when she is released from jail.

In the next chapter, the town where Joe grew up and his mother lives is detailed. Note the structure. First we are drawn in to Joe's life and drama, then we get more details about his environment. Struggling writers often start with the details of environment.

Because his mother lives hours from the college, Joe must make a decision about how to care for his autistic brother who can't be left alone.

Returning home, Joe has a memory of an accident that hurt his brother. After the accident, he has to visit local bars to find his mother and bring her home. When she sees Joe's brother bleeding from the head, she explodes...

"You had to use my good towel," she yelled. "You couldn't just grab a rag. Look at this blood in the carpet. We could lose our damage deposit. Did you ever stop to think about that? No. You never think. You just make the goddamn mess and I have to clean it up."

This scene conveys the emotional minefield Joe must navigate each time he needs to deal with his mother.

Joe also has to be artful to convey a new living situation to his autistic brother.

'It was easy to lie to Jeremy, his trusting temperament being incapable of understanding deceit. I didn't lie to him to be mean. It was just my way of explaining things to him without the complexity of nuance that came with the truth.'

Eskens does an excellent job of setting out the dramatic situations Joe must deal with to try and gain a better life by going to college.

The second chapter ends with...

'As I pulled out of the driveway, I contemplated my work and class schedules, trying to find gaps that would allow me to keep an eye on Jeremy. On top of that, distracting questions ripped through my brain. How would Jeremy get along in the unfamiliar world of my apartment? Where would I find the time or money to bail my mother out of jail? And how the hell did I become the parent in this wreck of a family?'

Excellent questions that increase Joe's inner tension and that pull readers forward to turn the page and begin chapter three.

Chapter Three begins...

'On the drive back to the Twin Cities, I watched the anxiety pace back and forth behind my brother's eyes, his brow and forehead as he processed what was happening.'

Bringing his brother to his college town apartment has an unintended but welcome introduction and connection to the girl next door, Lila, who volunteers to help with Jeremy.

It only comes out much later how damaged Lisa is.

Returning to Joe's mother...

'Add to that cauldron {untreated bi-polar} an ever increasing measure of cheap vodka-a form of cheap medication that quelled the inner scream but amplified the crazy-and you get a picture of the life I left behind.'

And the life that won't stay behind.

At the end of chapter three, Joe considers...

'When I finally fell asleep that night, I did so wrapped comfortably in the belief that my meeting with Carl Iverson would have no down side, that our encounter would somehow make my life-easier. In hindsight, I was at best naive.'

Joe ultimately discovers that Carl was suicidal while serving in Vietnam over his inability to save a young girl from rape. Which is how, in part, Joe comes to believe that Carl was not guilty of raping and killing a young girl who lived next door to his house.

Carl is yet another character with a deep mental wound.

The Life We Bury does a great job of using mental illness to greatly complicate and add drama to Joe's life. The drama is organic to the story. It creates a situation where there's no easy path forward for Joe, the hallmark of creating narrative tension in a novel.

This is a novel with excellent story dynamics.




Copyright 2018 Bill Johnson