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Fellow Mortals: A Novel Paperback – February 5, 2013
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*Starred Review* Carefully yet implacably drawing upon the theme that we are all connected, Mahoney’s quietly powerful debut snapshots the lives of suburban neighbors who become bound to one another through an almost unbearably banal yet utterly real tragedy. Henry Cooper is a mail carrier, husband, and very decent guy when he one day lights up his cigar while on his route and tosses the match into the gutter in the sort of careless gesture anyone might make. This gesture, however, burns down a house and kills someone else’s wife, touching off an even darker firestorm of events for the neighborhood’s residents. The shell-shocked widower, Sam Bailey, retreats into the woods. Henry’s wife, Ava, holds firm to her love for her husband as she soldiers on. High-powered Peg sanctimoniously blames Henry and refuses his offers of atonement. Billy and his wife, Sheri, continue to destroy their own lives as they observe their street’s meltdown. As the characters warily orbit one another, hidden desperation, longings, and demons rear up and spark further tragedy. With the barest glimmer of hope to buoy the calamities of his deeply earnest, lyrical story, Mahoney can share shelf space with Dave Eggers and Stewart O’Nan. --Julie Trevelyan
"Quietly powerful.... With the barest glimmer of hope to buoy the calamities of his deeply earnest, lyrical story, Mahoney can share shelf space with Dave Eggers and Stewart O'Nan." -- Booklist, Starred Review
"A thoughtful examination on how tragedy can change different people in different ways....It also reveals how we often avoid confronting the fear and pain that manifests in our thoughts." -- Zyzzyva
"Fellow Mortals, while full of vivid interactions, is perhaps most moving in its subtle depiction of people alone, trying to find ordinary meaning amid disarray.... [It] will stay with me for its watchful portrait of people, imperfect in life as in art, trying to find goodness in one another and themselves." -- The New York Times
"A small, tight, deftly rendered tale.... Mahoney has crafted a complete universe populated by people who feel real, living lives that feel real." -- The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Every character in this tightly knit debut novel has a choice to make in how to handle the aftermath of the tragedy. What each one does affects the rest, bringing home the truth that 'you're not alone, even when you are.'" -- The Plain Dealer
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This is a book whose beauty and power crept up on me and took me by surprise. And I stumbled onto it while browsing in an actual bookstore, so I hope they don't all close, because how else am I going to find these gems?
Henry Cooper is a friendly mailman, always quick to lend a smile, even a hand. One beautiful afternoon while on his mail route on Arcadia Street, he lights a cigar (forbidden by his wife), and absentmindedly tosses his match to the ground. In just a few minutes, that careless action lights several houses on fire, damaging the homes of people he has come to know on his route. Henry actually saves some people from the fire, but that doesn't lessen the impact of what he has done, as a young wife is killed.
While on suspension from his job awaiting the results of an investigation, Henry wants nothing more than to help those whose lives he has affected. He and his devoted wife, Ava, take in elderly sisters Joan and Nan Finn, while they try to decide what to do next. While he is snubbed by some families, the one person he tries reaching out to most of all is sculptor Sam Bailey, whose wife, Laura, died in the fire. Sam is practically rudderless and unsure of what to do with his days, but he is revived by his work, sculpting mysterious figures from the trees near his house. Sam doesn't know how to react to Henry--he wants to be angry and hurt, even vengeful, but Henry's affability and his need to make Sam feel like he belongs wears him down.
Fellow Mortals is both a story about many different kinds of relationships as well as how people deal with the aftermath of a crisis. Ava is frustrated by Henry's openness and need to help those affected by the fire, but most of all, she wants to protect him from himself. There's the angry and overprotective neighbor, Peg Carmichael, who cannot forgive Henry and blames him for everything that goes wrong in her life. Billy and Sheri Kane, a young couple down on their luck both financially and emotionally find that the fire has damaged more than part of their home. And Sam tries to lose himself in his work while fending off advice from those who seem to know better.
This is a beautifully spare, tragic book. It has the potential to veer into melodrama but Dennis Mahoney's writing ability keeps the story engaging and surprising without sacrificing authenticity. At first there were so many characters to keep straight and no one seemed particularly sympathetic, but the story quietly grew on me, and really affected me. It's amazing how one simple, careless action has the potential to ripple throughout so many lives, and cause a chain of events to occur long after the first action happened. And one thing that truly appealed to me about this book is that there was as much power in what remained unsaid and undone as what the characters actually said and did.
This is a book that will make you feel, make you think, and maybe even make you cry. It's definitely one worth reading.