Literary fiction underserves, and often neglects, the working class and the impoverished. Rising alongside the European petit bourgeois, this subset of fiction—character-driven, sometimes devoid of plot—largely served the people consuming it, what we’d call the middle-class or upper-middle-class in the United States. When poverty reveals itself in literary fiction, it’s often meant as a warning, a cautionary tale, a worst-case-scenario for people living in comfort.
Among the few writers who point to life in poverty—neither romanticizing nor demonizing it, but showing it as it is—for good or ill are Charles Bukowski, John Fante, and Jack Kerouac. We’ll bracket arguing for or against their literary merit and focus on one aspect: their willingness to describe poverty without establishing fantasies of escaping it, without portraying it as the just and inevitable consequence of bad choices or missed opportunities.
Alcohol and drug use, violent crime, depression, domestic abuse—these are phenomena concomitant to poverty, correlations sociologists zeroed in on decades ago, connections only the willfully blind ignore. Writers who traffic in the ugly truth of poverty can’t escape these behaviors, and few publishers, it seems, are willing to take the risk of exploring them. In a world where we heap praises on writers who focus on middle-class people with middle-class problems—Jennifer Egan, Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, et al.—writers such as D. Foy, and novels such as Patricide, are rare, welcome, and refreshing.
Tragedy and despair lurk beneath the surface of Patricide. Told in snapshots, the book chronicles the relationship between a boy and his parents. They’re thrust into poverty at birth, creating, and dealing with, destructive distractions. Their interfamilial relationship is complex, filled with hardships and turmoil, abuse and addiction—and D. Foy doesn’t flinch in telling it.
The boy, Pat Rice, and his mother and father drink and fight, ignoring the abuse they inflict on each other, downplaying or altogether dismissing past indiscretions. This is a story about a family that’s locked in a cycle of abuse and neglect, a specific set of habits that recur through the generations—in part the products of poverty.
You don’t need your father’s whippings, you don’t need your father’s pokes or thumps. Your father’s disappointment is enough to kill another piece of you, the way your father’s disappointment always kills another piece of you, some little part of you hidden beneath the other parts you never knew that you still had. Your father might whip or poke or thump you, or your father might not whip or poke or thump you, but he will never not talk down at you with the voice he uses to let you know you’ve failed him yet again. And then your father will leave you, and the sun will be blown away, and you’ll be left to stumble through your waste of fear till your father comes to take you back. And though your father always takes you back, you can never say for sure he will. Each abandonment is the last abandonment, each abandonment another betrayal, another little death. And your mother’s betrayal, with each of the lies in her endless show of lies, will never fail to be followed by your father’s own, told in nearly perfect faith. And this lie of your father’s is the lie he’ll tell again and again by acting in every way possible as though he believes the lies your mother tells are truth, when for years he’s known that all your mother tells are lies. Once your father leaves the house each morning, he’s a void till night, he might as well be gone for good. Your mother calls your father with tales of your villainy, but those tales when you hear them from your father bear no semblance to the world you were in. And what’s more, there’s nothing you can do.
At the heart of the story is the fraught relationship between Pat and his father. Poor and downtrodden, they’re each satellites careering toward a black hole, the kind of irrevocable chasm abuse creates. His father, drunk or stoned, neglects him or abuses him—sometimes passively, sometimes aggressively. The abuse of the parents manifests itself in violence and recklessness in their children. Pat drifts through life, sometimes as a witness to his parents’ chaos and sometimes a participant and facilitator of his own style of discord.
The tone is notable in its unflinching and unsentimental attitude. There are no sweeping moments here, no picaresque shots or moments of epiphany. Instead, Foy thrusts us into a raw and detached world, one free of ornamentation and contrived emotions. It’s a tone you’ll only encounter in writers who dominate their craft, writers confident and certain of their ability to create, and delve into, a bleak world.
D. Foy’s characters feel like people you could meet in the real world. His prose is understated yet profound. Simple sentences and vocabulary call to mind Hemingway or McCarthy:
A wind swept through the trees. The moon had risen. He could see it now glimmering through the trees, nearly full but not. Beneath him, just off the road, the creek murmured round its stones. All along, the creek had been running by the road down the canyon, but till now he hadn’t heard it. There it ran, the creek full of crayfish and minnows and moss. He could see the creek, now, too. The moon’s light was shining through the trees.
Told in concise, deceptively brilliant prose, Patricide is a breathtaking study of poverty, familial abuse, and the scars we pass along like defective genes. Patricide will get under your skin: it will haunt you, frustrate you, and, weirdly, inspire you. It’s less a novel and more of an experience. It’s a brilliantly conceived and executed book.