Mongrel Empire Press, 2016
Perfect bound, 243 pp., $18
Review by Heather L. Levy
In This Season of Rage and Melancholy Such Irrevocable Acts as These, Kat Mead’s newest book, is a title certainly begging for notice, much like the struggles of her Southern-worn characters in 1978 Mawatuck County. When asked why such a lengthy title, Meads simply states, “Although I have published novels with one-word titles before (Sleep), this novel’s characters and themes seemed to call for a different approach.”
If a different approach means a young woman who drinks excessively to forget her Pentecostal upbringing, her miscarried child, and the harassment of a tuxedoed god her delusions created, Meads is off to an excellent start. Her novel delivers a quiet punch to the throat in these currently turbulent times because it highlights a South some would like to forget exists. These are characters who feel older than their ages because they’ve been dragged through the mud, sometimes in the literal sense. As Meads says, the book and its fictional rural county are “built on the premise that the ugly can break one’s heart more profoundly than the pretty.”
With that in mind, Meads structures her book around mostly two- to three-page snapshots rather than longer chapters, offering flashes of the ugly and pretty she speaks of while building layers to her two main characters, Beth and Mickey. The only drawback to this approach is that she writes such vivid characters that it feels a bit like getting dirt kicked in the eyes when one character’s story is cut off for the next one’s snippet. In many ways, it works for the narrative, this piecemeal storytelling, because it creates more questions that implore answers.
Meads’ saddest protagonist—Elizabeth “Beth” Jane Anderson, the aforementioned drinker—spends her days surrounded by her only friends, married couple Leeta and George, whom she obsesses over as their marriage declines. Meads doesn’t give much in the way of clues to what Beth wants or needs in life outside of avoiding her hallucinations of God, one very different from the Pentecostal deity she grew up worshiping. She dresses her reimagined God in a tux, has “Him speak with a foreign accent because she wanted Him to sound like no one else she knew,” and made her God “Indifferent to struggle.” Although Beth’s God “seemed content to watch and smoke and sneer in silence,” Beth escapes conversations with him by drinking “enough to bid Him farewell.” Outside of drinking and her work as a bank teller, Beth’s existence appears to be reliant upon her two friends, especially Leeta, the fighter of the two who defended Beth against a bully in high school many years before: “Please let Leeta Porter be my friend. Forever and ever. No matter what, no matter what.” It’s not until the end of the novel that the “no matter what” becomes tragically clear.
At the other end of the spectrum, Meads’ Mickey Waterman, the once-tattooed teen turned real estate mogul, schemes to outdo his tyrant father, whose death Mickey points out “eliminated just one of a stream of sons of bitches in Mawatuck County ready, eager, and able to kick Mickey Junior in the nuts.” Mickey’s all about revenge and how best to serve it to those who have wronged him. Part of that revenge comes in the form of selling sub-prime land to “out-of-town investors whose asses he’d have to kiss” at various events “spent with fake buddies and sentimental drunks.” Meads doesn’t skirt around it; Mickey is an asshole who enjoys exerting his power and wealth any way he can.
However, it’s Meads’ use of peripheral characters that rounds out Beth and Mickey. For example, single mom Becca Denby meets her future employer the “afternoon her box of cereal knocked against Mickey Waterman’s can of Vienna sausage on the checkout counter of the 7-11.” From that point, he offers her solid work as his right hand earning wages that would cause most in the rural county to die from envy, something Becca doesn’t take lightly: “She’d always owe him. Whatever happened—anything that happened, anytime, anyplace—she had his back.” So, Mickey’s not a complete, unredeemable dick, and his sprinkled generosity shows up throughout the novel, usually in unexpected places. The fact that Becca, a determined and intelligent woman, can stand to be around Mickey at all shows she’s grateful for the opportunity he’s given her. There’s something about Mickey, perhaps the gentler side he doesn’t often show to others, that seems to inspire Becca’s intense loyalty outside of simple indebtedness.
As Becca does for Mickey, Leeta, Beth’s feisty best friend, serves as a counterpoint to Beth’s lonely, secretive personality. Leeta’s a vivacious, beautiful woman likely to wear a “sundress that started low and finished high,” and she’s just smart enough to be dangerous in the small town. Meads, however, is not as successful with Leeta’s character outside of her role in helping to define and add layers to her husband and Beth, and she falls back into being the “woman, rumor squawked, who’d celebrated her curtain call to the singles’ life, the night before her wedding day, in the arms of another man.” When a character who doesn’t have much ammunition to blackmail threatens Leeta unless she gets naked, Leeta says, “The standard bump and grind or shall I improvise?” All her grit and spunk, her playing dirty in baseball with Beth and George, with partying at the local bar, diminishes some with that scene. She’s a character who seems to want more than just to get out of Mawatuck County with a few more dollars, but her desires are never quite clear.
Meads is much more successful with Leeta’s husband George, whom Leeta calls “a nutcase about farming but still a decent guy.” George is more than that; he, in essence, represents the changing political, social and economic scene in the 1970s South. One particular chapter about one-third of the way into the novel details some of those changes as George mows his family farmland: “He started mowing in the backyard because there, when he glanced up, he saw fields. Mowing the front yard, he saw cars. By next summer, he’d be mowing beside cars that whizzed by four abreast.” George, admittedly a bad farmer, repeatedly declines offers to sell his family’s farmland, acknowledging, “Maybe he couldn’t live, farm, the very same as his father and grandfather, but that didn’t justify rejecting the farming life altogether.” George, who so dearly wants to hold onto that farming life while knowing in his gut the old will succumb to the new, also holds onto the idea of Leeta being a good wife even when he found her in someone else’s arms on his wedding night.
In this way, Meads defines her characters by their reliance on each other, on their pasts and hopes for the future. Here it is, nearly forty years after the period she writes about In This Season of Rage and Melancholy Such Irrevocable Acts as These, and shrinking rural areas in America are still reconciling the political, social, and economic changes. Perhaps the one glimmer of hope with this constant change comes from George: “The present didn’t have to repeat precisely the past to honor it.”