February 2005

Damien Weaver


Tar and Feathers by Dorothy Nelson

Within this reviewer's limited experience, any book reprinted by the Dalkey Archive Press is worth taking the time to read. This holds true for Dorothy Nelson's Tar and Feathers, a short, wildly unpleasant book about a short and wildly unpleasant Irish family. There are no sympathetic characters, at least, none admirable, none anything but grotesquely pathetic: Da is a violently abusive, terminally unemployed paranoiac who gets his kicks showing kids his dick, Ma is a violently abused, pill-popping, sexually dysfunctional doormat with a crush on her weakling son, and Benjamin is a kleptomaniacal social pariah who reciprocates his mother's incestuous affections. Things begin badly and go worse in a household where every domestic implement threatens, every word stings and the marriage bed is a blood-soaked altar of rape.

The tumbling, poetical quality of Nelson's prose makes Tar and Feathers something more than a test of readers' squeamishness. As her miserable characters bash themselves senseless against the narrow confines of their lives, we are privy to their daydreams, litanies of inward reassurance and complaint. These lyrical fugues move like blues tunes or a shuffling dance step, returning over and over to private lodes of pain, edging outward only a little before folding back again to pick old scabs. The incantatory ramblings of the unsalvageably damaged deluding, consoling, and scolding themselves through daily existence don't make for comfortable reading, but are boldly and convincingly rendered.

Nelson writes with the calm fearlessness of Brendan Behan; shocking actions and sentiments are presented without coyness, prurience, or any authorial affect whatsoever. Things, and more importantly people, are how they are. Or are they? Benjamin quasi-narrates even his parents' lengthy internal monologues, smudging the grimed borders of their individualities. There's no way Benjee could know some of what he tells us in his parents' voices, but with the stinking stew of this nuclear nightmare family's sorrows closing overhead, the reader's struggle for breath and daylight takes primacy over identifying precisely who said or did precisely what, when.

Tar and Feathers is a high-wire act, teetering sometimes on the brink of self-parody, and when Nelson missteps, it's painful: "The passion rose and fell in our kitchen like a limping leprechaun on its way to the barber'sfor a crewcut." A few early flights of fancy crash likewise, but when Nelson gets it right, as in the searing chapter titled "Ma's Holiday," she provides us a hideous, unflinching depiction of mind and mentality in the throes of abuse.

Tar and Feathers by Dorothy Nelson
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1564783731
133 Pages