Lucian Childs’ short stories have been widely published in various literary journals throughout the US and Canada. Dreaming Home is his debut book-length work of fiction, divided into six chapters that focus on different characters spanning a time period of about forty years. So is it a short story collection, a novel in stories, or something else entirely?
The book begins in Texas in 1977, with twelve-year-old Rachel Mullen. Her father is a military helicopter pilot with a drinking problem that often frightens her and throws the family dynamics off balance. She finds order in religion and math, particularly trigonometry, pinning trig tables to the ceiling over bed. Her older brother Kyle likes to draw, and in an early scene, Rachel catches him with pictures of naked men. “For whosoever sins does not prosper—one of Dad’s favorite verses—but one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy. How could I go against that? Against God?” (P 24) Rachel is wracked with religious guilt, and decides to tell her dad about the drawings. Their father proceeds to beat Kyle so badly he doesn’t let him leave the house even for school until the bruises are gone. But instead of returning to his normal life, Kyle is shipped off, and Rachel’s parents don’t tell her why or where he went.
Kyle ends up in a conversion therapy church program. The next chapter is narrated by a group of “boys at the ministry” who recount events in first-person plural, showing their unified perspective of the situation, each other, and Kyle Mullen. Kyle is given a rubber band to snap when he has “unclean thoughts,” and throughout this section the word “snap” is interspersed, eliciting the sting Kyle must be feeling, and the cumulative pain of physically hurting himself on a regular basis. “Snap. Again, snap. It’s bug-eyed Brother Mullen. Faith Leader told the tall blond boy he’d better wear a rubber band around one wrist to pluck whenever he had unclean thoughts. By now, the skin there is all raw and red.” (P 47)
The book then jumps to ten years later, when Kyle is 24, letting the reader follow him closely through a brief period of his life. While some of the other sections are written in first person, this singular glimpse directly at Kyle is interesting because it still maintains some distance from him by being told in third person. Kyle flees to Houston after high school graduation, and then to San Francisco years later, where he lives in his car. He changes his last name to Turner and drops his Texan accent as he searches for an architecture job and tries to reinvent himself in a new city.
The other three chapters follow two of Kyle’s partners, Robert and Jason, as well as his mother, Diane. We see Kyle moving on with his life, struggling but finding some success and happiness. While a large portion of the book is told through his partners’ eyes, it brings Kyle’s past trauma into focus, and delves into his relationship with his mother—the only family member he’s ever been close to, and the only one he has left. Through all his struggles, the sound of the rubber band snapping intermittently throughout his life echoes through the story as that cumulative pain of past trauma haunts him.
Since the sections are so tightly integrated into a single narrative that progresses from one chapter to the next, the book as a whole reads more like a novel. Yet, there is no real main character. Kyle is the catalyst, and the central plotline weaves around his life, but it’s not really about him. In fact, he’s often not on the page, and feels detached from those around him when he is, so it’s easy to feel closer to the other characters. This is what broadens the scope, making it a book about a whole family rather than a single protagonist. They’re all unreliable narrators in a way, not because they’re trying to deceive the reader or themselves, but because there is no single source of objective truth from an omniscient narrator. This approach invites the reader to create their own version of Kyle and the rest of the family by piecing together what they learn from each character.
On a prose level, the book calls to mind Canadian greats like Alice Munro. Though weighty, the stories or chapters in Dreaming Home are easy to devour because they feel so real and personal, like someone talking directly to you as you read. The language is sparse, yet beautifully written, illuminating brief moments and observations that root you to the lives and experiences of these characters, making them vivid and real. “In the kitchen, the sun casts a yellow parallelogram onto the linoleum in front of the paired sliding doors. Rachel draws vertical blinds across them, carving dark slices into the skewed yellow box on the floor.” (P 190).
The characters really feel alive and make you want to root for them. Though it tackles heavy themes, Dreaming Home is always a delight to read, and leaves the reader with a sense of hope, serving as a reminder that even through pain, there is still beauty in the world, in ourselves, and in each other.
by Lucian Childs
Biblioasis, June 2023, 224 p.p., $22.95
Will Fawley holds an MFA from George Mason University where he was assistant fiction editor for Phoebe Journal of Literature and Art. His fiction has appeared in Parallel Prairies, Unburied Fables, Expanded Horizons, The Northern Virginia Review, Another Place: Brief Disruptions, and Sassafras Literary Magazine, and his book reviews have appeared in Prairie Fire (online), The Winnipeg Review, and As It Ought to Be.