Practically speaking, a car is a means of getting from one place to another, but the vehicle driving through Michael Kimball’s first book, The Way the Family Got Away, is also a home, a confessional, a playpen, and a coffin. Tag-team-narrated by a very young girl and her slightly older brother, the novel follows them and their parents from Mineola, Texas, across the country to their Bompa’s house in Gaylord, Michigan-also known as “Heaven” and the place where they “could start living again.” This is no family vacation. The parents are fleeing the death of their infant son, though their escape doesn’t put much distance between them and the dead baby, whose body rests in a small toy box in the trunk.
It’s a bleak story with gothic overtones, and readers familiar with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying will notice similarities-alternating narrators, a corpse-in-transit, plenty of hardscrabble luck, and a lack of money, which in this case forces the family to sell or trade practically everything they own as they go. We also learn on the copyright page that Kimball, who lives in Lubbock, based his novel on a story passed down by his great-grandmother about her own younger brother’s death, followed by a journey from Mineola to Gaylord.
Antecedents aside, Kimball inhabits the story and makes it his own, producing a work of stylistic originality and convincing experimental voices. Relinquishing dialogue altogether, the author places the novel entirely in the developing minds of his two young narrators, who channel their experiences into something both tangible and hauntingly strange. With her delightfully offhand observations and striking voice, the character of the daughter is especially well drawn. Her narratives transform everything they touch-her little brother didn’t die of a fever, but because “the sun-color got too bright and too inside under [his] skin until it burned his insides out inside his crib”; a priest is a “fold-handed man that threw drops of water all around the room but that never made it rain outside.”
The young boy offers a more concrete narrative of the journey, one sensitive to his parents’ doomed quest to start over. His deadpan chapters reckon with uprootedness, inventorying the places his family travels through and what they sell to keep going. It’s curious that a novel without character names-only “my mother,” “my father,” “my sister,” etc.-would feature a young boy who diligently rattles off the names of cities like Stringtown, Albion, Hot Springs. But in doing so, he heightens the sense that his family is seriously messing with the order of things on its journey to Bompa’s, essentially erasing itself as it moves north. Each time his parents sell something-a wedding dress, a wallet, their clothes-the boy recognizes the sold possession as a possibility discarded. Eventually the family is left with nothing but the titular getting away: “The only things that were still holding us together anymore were the miles and the farther away and that we could keep going away even though we didn’t have any maps anymore.” Sadly, despite these attempts to hold on to fleeting surroundings, his chapters drive home the fact that the only constant in these children’s lives is movement itself.
Objects play a crucial role in the lives of these children, who are scrambling to make sense out of the misfortunes around them. For the young girl, it’s her dolls, probably because, as she puts it, “My doll family plays better at family than my people one does.” With her playthings as props, she gives loquacious exegeses on how the doll representations of her family keep their counterparts alive, or kill them: She believes her little brother became sick because she left her baby doll in the sun. Hers is a tenuous hold on life. She seems haunted by a sense of impending death, as if she and her surviving brother haven’t gotten big enough to escape it. At the same time, she doesn’t see death as final, as if her dead brother might still come back to life:
We were still little and going and living inside our housecar where my little brother’s room was inside the trunk where he slept inside the toy box for a crib. He shared his room with Poppa’s tools and one more tire for when another one of the tires rolls out of breath. But we didn’t have one more of my little bother to put anymore air inside him so don’t let him get worn out or holes so the people leaks out of him or the skin wears down to too thin and goes to see-through angelskin.
Her doll family mirrors the ideal family her parents try to reclaim by driving across the country. Neither holds together, as is painfully revealed when her dolls are sold to another young girl. She responds by attacking the new owner, but her description of the event is disorienting, her fury withheld. By the next chapter, she is already bonding with her new dolls, which she cuts out of paper.
This brings us to the novel’s potential drawback. Kimball has an unmistakable appetite for misfortune-death, miscarriage, abductions-and by placing the novel in the minds of two young children, he refuses to strike emotional chords that some readers might wish were struck. We read that at the younger brother’s funeral, “This man from Brownland told my sister and me that neither one of us was the dead one so we shouldn’t cry anymore,” but we don’t read what it’s like to cry, to be sad, to sustain any anger. But in the end, this is what makes the book so distinctive and challenging. Instead of the emotions that typically accompany death and displacement, Kimball fashions a new set of responses to these tragedies, leaving readers to reach their own conclusions. Like the parents in his book, he uproots us, and we are left somewhere strange to try to find our way back again.
Michael Miller, a sometime Texan, is an editor at The Village Voice.