James Agee’s A Death in the Family is praised as an American classic, as a lyrical account of the death of a 36-year-old father of two and the effect this has on his family. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958.
I hated it.
Yes, there is an inherent sorrow in the event at the book’s center, based on the death of Agee’s father when Agee himself was just six years old (the age of the older child, Rufus, in the book). Jay Follet gets a call in the middle of the night that his ill father is nearing death, and he races up to try to get there before the old man dies. It turns out to be a false alarm, and on the way home, Follet dies in a one-car accident. I think we can all agree that that’s a pretty awful turn of events.
What Agee does from there – and in his defense, he had not finished working on the book at the time of his own death at age 45, with publication and a Pulitzer Prize coming two years after he died – left me cold. The constant changes of perspective, flitting from one character’s mind to another’s and back and forth in time, break any emotional connection the reader might have with the thinly-drawn characters. Follet’s wife/widow, Mary, is depicted with broad brush strokes as a staunchly Catholic woman drawn deeper into her faith (which isolates her from the rest of her agnostic family, who didn’t approve of her marriage to Jay in the first place) but with little voice of her own. Rufus gets the best material in a passage that describes his first meeting after the accident with the neighborhood toughs who pick on him daily, but by that point, I’d checked out emotionally. As for the lyrical prose, I must have missed it; there wasn’t a phrase or a passage that stuck with me for more than a few seconds, and I often found myself skimming paragraphs (Agee could have stood to shorten those) to try to get back to the dialogue. Yet somehow, this book won the Pulitzer – okay, I suppose I should stop pretending that means something, because it doesn’t, and being dead absolutely helps your chances of winning – and made the TIME 100, which has been a much more reliable reading guide. I suppose everyone’s entitled to a miss every now and then.