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Patricide: An American Mess

By Saxon Baird.

D. Foy, Patricide (Stalking Horse Press, 2016)

While D. Foy may have not envisioned a Trump presidency propped up by the same kind of disgruntled, white, lower middle-class Americans that fill his new novel, Patricide, the book has hit shelves with some near-perfect timing. Foy’s challenging sophomore effort may be a sign of things to come from American fiction as we enter an uncertain new era. If nothing else, it’s an unintended piece of literary interpretation for how we arrived at this unexpected crossroads in the country’s history.

Much of Patricide revolves around the life of Pat Rice (a cheeky play on the book’s title), who hails from some middle-ish town USA and a morally compromised middle-class American family. Rice attempts to escape this fate and later, as a man, build his sense of self and meaning up from a mere by-product of a crumbling, post-baby boom family unit. Cue the drugs, drinking, infidelity, tears and bloody knuckles.

Granted, it’s a well-known story, but rarely has it been told with Foy’s unforgiving examination. At its best, Patricide is devastating, thanks to Foy’s hyper-detailed account of Pat as it follows him from a broken childhood through a debauched adolescence and concludes, in adulthood, with his search for understanding and forgiveness. Throughout, Foy wades through the complexities of a damaged life behind closed doors, siphoning out the marrow of these experiences beyond the margins that are so often not discussed and even actively forgotten:

The more I poured out my woes, and the more I begged him to save me, the further he retreated.

As if I was a prisoner with whom my father shared a cell, consoling our mutual fate, as if I had no more choice than, like him, to bear his awful burden, he said he felt bad for me, he said he was sorry I felt the way I did.

I love you, Son, my father would say as he walked off, hands above his head.

If my father bore no blame for a crime he couldn’t stop or stave, his paralysis before it couldn’t be seen as caused by fear.

He could float away in his cloud of weed, up above the world, and there in blameless repose watch events unfold below. And anything that failed to meet such reasons he dealt with by established rule – amnesia manufactured.

My father standing by while I was beaten and debased, I saw, was to help your friend find his wallet after you have ripped it off.

Throughout the book, Foy revels in these uncomfortable spaces and memories with a magnifying glass, attempting to make them vivid enough to expose their dark truths and emphasize the unimaginable depths at which they can affect us.

In this regard, early reviews of Foy’s second novel have earned him comparisons to authors like Denis Johnson, who also explore contemporary American life on the fringes. But while Johnson’s portrayal of down and out America (not only Jesus’ Son, but the criminally overlooked Angels) are often an exercise in poetic restraint, Patricide throws the high-beams on Foy’s manic prose. A nervous urgency runs through the novel, blazing with the intensity of cheap amphetamines—the kind that have by now likely ravaged the small town Foy’s characters live in. This style, of course, mirrors Pat’s chaotic nature, as well as those around him and their attempts to shore up a facade of stability and normalcy, behind which lie only banal dysfunction and the usual suspects:  parental-, marital-, and self-abuse.

The drawback is that Foy’s prose can get more than a little chaotic itself. Density of detail is both Foy’s strength and his greatest weakness. A thirty-plus page chapter on smoking weed for the first time as a ten-year old is certainly exciting, and it manages to give the reader a visceral sense of what it’s like to discover an escape route in drugs, the kind the protagonist will later exploit. Yet the nostalgic self-indulgence dumped on the reader through Foy’s descriptions is undeniable. Here and in many other places in Patricide, Foy gets lost in the world he is creating, his high-energy prose force-feeding the reader all of its emotional and intellectual substance.

In this way it is not unlike Knausgaard’s My Struggle, with its painstaking, comprehensive investigation of the past and its seeming blend of memoir and fiction. Foy has a similar knack for relentless introspection, and it serves the novel well in creating a searing portrait of his damaged protagonist. Unfortunately, Foy’s torrential prose, his sometimes bloated poetics, wash away nuance and delicacy, drowning out the downtrodden voice that carries the book. The power of restraint, selectively deployed, goes entirely untapped in Patricide.

These flourishes might have been more easily forgiven if not for the other ways in which Foy tries to scuttle traditional novelistic structure and style. Experimental methods, if they aren’t to be gratuitous, need to serve the narrative in some way, emphasizing a thematic element or helping induce a reaction, emotional or otherwise, in the reader. In Patricide, however, these moves come off as arbitrary and irksome. For instance, the periodic switching between first, second and third person perspective is exhilarating, but it fails to inform the greater narrative or deepen our sense of the characters. Instead, it seems just punkishly disruptive.

Other confounding decisions plague Patricide. All the ancillary characters are given full names, while Pat’s siblings are curiously described as only X and Y. Epigraphs from writers, philosophers, poets and others begin each chapter, in what seems like an attempt to add intellectual heft, but they are odd when juxtaposed with the rough-and-tumble prose that fills the chapters.

All of these points may seem like small criticisms, but they add up to a lot of distraction, drawing the reader away from the tragic tale at the heart of the book. Still, Foy does enough to offset these missteps, and at times he cuts cleanly through to the abuse, fear, confusion, and loss that the protagonist faces in his struggle to find answers about his loveless past. In these moments, the result is something beautiful and dark.

All told, Patricide is a dizzying, blemished mess of a novel. Perhaps that’s the point, as the clutter and chaos of the book manage to recapitulate the very world the novel creates. And that world is not merely the world of the book. Foy is offering us here an intimate, semi-fictional portrayal of the breakdown in America’s lower middle-class communities. The lack of focus and clarity in the novel, the overheated intensity of its prose, is at least partly a consequence of the steaming, murky waters of the American profane that Foy invites us to swim in.


Saxon Baird has written for Guernica, Slate, Vice Sports, Gothamist, Blunderbuss, Fanzine, Large Up and other places.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 20th, 2017.