The Law of Falling Bodies, Duff Brenna’s brilliant new novel, is set in Minnesota during the Vietnam War. It opens with its protagonist, Virgil Foggy, lopping off the heads of dozens of chickens in the so-called killing field of the family farm in Foggy Meadow. Only fourteen, but Virgil is proficient at slaughter. As the carnage of the opening chapter would suggest, something is rotten in Foggy Meadow-a settlement founded by Virgil’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Fergus. Virgil’s father, Jim, has shuffled off his mortal coil and his mother, Regina, has married Virgil’s father’s brother, Dick. Thousands of miles away, Virgil’s older brother fights the VC and NVA. Vernon’s story is relayed through a series of letters to Virgil. His honest, poetic vernacular is juxtaposed–in a heading Brenna appositely designates “Rolling Thunder”– by the rhetoric of the politicians responsible for escalating and continuing hostilities in that national disgrace known as the Vietnam War. The Law of Falling Bodies is therefore not only the title but a metaphor for the times.
The Law of Falling Bodies contains some of the finest prose moments I have ever encountered. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, the story of a dysfunctional Iowan farming family, with a pregnant wink to King Lear, contains few memorable descriptions or phrases. Where Miss Smiley is content with melodrama in alluding to Shakespeare’s play, Brenna, in The Law of Falling Bodies, never becomes melodramatic or obvious in his allusions to Hamlet. He conveys his story with a language worthy of a nod to the Bard. Like James Joyce, Brenna has a preternatural ability to convey nuance, such as Virgil’s rescue of a fallen sparrow. One only has to remember Hamlet’s musing on being prepared to meet death (“There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow”) to realize Brenna is operating at a higher level than most other writers.
Among the traits distinguishing The Law of Falling Bodies is the protean narration. Portions of Virgil’s point of view is narrated tuistically (meaning in second person). It is, of course, an allusion to James Joyce’s “Proteus” episode in Ulysses, complete with blindness and a cane and “getting along nicely in the dark” and the virtuosity in which it is performed in The Law of Falling Bodies only proves Brenna’s poetic skill:
“Forty yards away on the other side of the road, the Crow River makes the same sound as the wind. The blue sky observes your skill with the ax. The deft, murderous killer.”
Pathetic fallacy (“blue sky observes”) was a favorite device of the Bard. The intentional tautology is an allusion to Joyce’s send-up of rhetoric in the “Aeolus” episode of Ulysses. Brenna, like the Bard, suggests that “errors are volitional and the portals of discovery,” which is what Stephen Dedalus declared in Scylla and Charybdis when he was talking about Shakespeare. The second person narration reminds us: Who are our thoughts for? For our second self, the other. Who is Hamlet addressing in his famous soliloquy, after all?
If Virgil is Hamlet, then it follows (like day follows night), there must be a Claudius and Gertrude. Dick Foggy, Virgil’s uncle-father who has married his late brother’s wife, “Regina,” is, as it should be suspected, a villain (in many ways, Dick out–Claudiuses Claudius). Brenna portrays Dick as a bibulous satyr in contrast to his brother, the beloved Jim, a good and honorable farmer. In Brenna’s thinking, if there are any kings on earth, they are the farmers. Yet, because of Brenna’s nicety for nuance, even Dick occasionally appears sympathetic. From the outset, Dick appears somewhat sadistic in his treatment of Virgil. So I’m not–by calling Dick a “villain”–giving too much away. It should also be pointed out that Dick shares the name of a disgraced President and a person who continued the Vietnam War. There are plenty of political quotes in the “Rolling Thunder” interludes to orient us to the times and our own quandary over the quagmire in Iraq. Uncanny, how politicians parrot one another, whether it’s 1970 or 2007.
Regina Perpetua Foggy, Gertrude in the scheme of things, knows she has made a mistake. She was unfaithful to Jim Foggy with her then brother-in-law, Dick, and there is doubt about who is the father of whom. Who is the father of Virgil, anyway? Is Ginger more than his “cousin”?
But Regina is more complex than her paradigm. A faded beauty, Regina is a chain drinker and smoker (albeit pregnant with Dick’s child). She also is reading Finnegans Wake. Trying to read Finnegans Wake, I should say. Regina’s mother-in-law, Grandma Nez, and her father-in-law, Pappy, help Virgil with the farm chores. Dick, when he isn’t drunk, works at a local car dealership. Grandma Nez–a great eccentric–is a Catholic with a taste for the I Ching.
Duff Brenna is too smart not to treat his readers to an Ophelia. Ginger, Virgil’s slightly older cousin (perhaps half-sister), Uncle Dick’s daughter by his former wife, is troubled, witty and palpable proof of the flyleaf assertion of Thomas E. Kennedy: Duff Brenna writes “characters who are as close to human beings as fictional characters can possibly be.”
As a person who believes in textual impartiality–as the greatest deconstructionist of them all, the late Jacques Derrida, maintained–I am probably doing a disservice to the purity of The Law of Falling Bodies. It is a great story, bursting with lasting images, filled with an assortment of interesting, nuanced characters, memorable action, memorable inaction, laughter, tears. The Law of Falling Bodies will reside in that side of you where literary treasures are preserved. The Law of Falling Bodies is a masterpiece. A thank-you to Hopewell Publications