David Huddle’s new novel The Faulkes Chronicle is magical, moving.
The failing heartbeat of a dying mother resonates as the saddest sound in human experience. The Faulkes Chronicle tells the story of an American family whose mother is dying, whose beloved life leaches away like the color fading from a family album photograph.
Karen Seifert Faulkes is in her early 50s. She’s educated as a literature teacher, and constructs herself as an exemplary mother, in whose ordinary life motherhood takes on a tone of mythological majesty. She has a heroic, impossible number of children. Karen focuses her life’s energy on each one of her offspring, learning their desires and capabilities, and treating every child as a special blessing, no matter how ordinary their gifts or faults.
For those children, ranging from infants to college age, Karen is idealized as the provider of the special rocket fuel they need to launch their own lives. In the foreground story, the business of the family outside of the mother’s terminal illness is put on hold for a year to focus fully on her impending death. The children invent a sedan chair device for transporting her in teams to magical, mundane creek banks and beachfronts, where family in-jokes and private moments fulfill the precious wishes of her last weeks of life.
This unusual family stands apart from social norms, rarely attending public events or even dining out, at odds with modern customs, seldom forming relationships or activities outside the family group. They have characteristic physical features, personality traits, virtues and faults, both genetic and acquired from emulation. The story is told in present tense by an unnamed first-person narrator, presumably one of the children, who refers to the family as “we” so often that it becomes the embodiment of all the children, as a chorus. That narrative voice guides the reader to understand the whole family as a “character” as much as any individual member.
The substance of the main story could be told in about 100 pages: a final journey of memory for a woman dying of cancer, literally a bus journey around the Eastern seaboard with her sizable immediate family in tow, as well as a strange, attached entourage of outsiders. Among this group are her oncologist, with whom she has an odd and troubling relationship, and two other health care providers who are monitoring her final days and the dynamics of her family.
In their fantastical craft of a tour bus, the family travels to a scenic inn at Cape May, New Jersey; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (to see one specific painting); and a particular diner in a Pennsylvania town. Karen has special memories of these sites. Perhaps the three destinations also represent the essential needs of a child from its mother for both practical and spiritual survival: shelter, artistry, and food.
The story is told in 62 untitled chapters of about five pages each, which enhances the accessibility and sustainability of such a depressing topic. There are nine secondary stories folded in, ranging from five to 20 pages long, three of which are extremely poignant stories from the earlier lives of the medical professionals who attend Karen on the journey. These stories highlight betrayal, ostracism, raw sexual desire, unrequited young love, and modern street violence—visceral intrusions from the world outside the Faulkes family-topia.
The Faulkes Chronicle will reward the reader with a portrait of an American family both ordinary and extraordinary, a portrait so sweeping it calls for landscape mode. I do not wish to lay an interpretive burden on this marvelously readable, touching novel, which has the elegance of simplicity without being simple in the least. However, the book resonates deeply on the theme of saying goodbye to one’s mother, whether that occurs through the literal death of a parent or the natural, inevitable maturing of the child into adulthood.
David Huddle has written his tenth fictional work of 19 published books in all, including poetry and essays. A professor emeritus after four decades of university teaching, he taught a short-story course in summer 2014 at the Sewanee School of Letters, and he also teaches at other creative writing and literature programs.
Apparently, Huddle has found more time to write since “retirement,” as this Chronicle is his third book in four years, including another novel, Nothing Can Make Me Do This, and a book of poetry, Black Snake at the Family Reunion, both literary award winners. The Faulkes Chronicles appears in bookstores and online retailers on Sept. 1.
The Faulkes Chronicle, David Huddle, Tupelo Press, c. 2014, 287 pages.