A young boy internalizes the burden of responsibility for his best friend’s unstoppable death. A sister molds herself into a living memorial to her brother, becoming both mystic and pragmatist, ascetic and sensualist. A mother, through rituals both musical and spiritual, counterpoints herself between feeling too at home in her grief and wishing her son’s ghost will finally leave her alone. And at the center: Joshua Sams, alive and then dead in the fall of 1982, linchpinning together the lives of those who loved him most as they struggle through the visceral permutations of regret, denial, and resignation, the desperate reach toward spiritual rebirth and the failure to be reborn.
About the Author
Douglas W. Milliken is the author of the novel To Sleep as Animals, the collection Blue of the World, and several chapbooks and collaborative multimedia projects, including In the Mines with the musician Scott Sell and Monolith with the metal smith Cat Bates. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a Maine Literary Award, along with prizes from Glimmer Train, the Stoneslide Corrective, and RA & Pin Drop Studios. He lives with his domestic and creative partner, Genevieve Johnson, in the industrial riverscape of Saco, Maine.
(Author photo byEd Dittenhoefer)
“Words and images rise in Doug Milliken like water from a spring, and he attends them with a watchful heart. A painter in words, he carries us back and forth between the sensuous pleasure of place and the inner life of his characters. A mother writes a letter to her deceased young son (whose death holds in orbit the novel’s principle characters): “the pale cataract of the dam and the fishy ripple of light shining off the creek’s face, the swans parading like soldiers among the water lilies…. I tossed the dead flowers into the water. I followed them as they flowed alongside the bank. I watched them tumble over the dam. After that, they were lost to me.”
Subtly, Milliken integrates character, place and moment, each alive in detail and nuance. His engaging community of characters at first appear unrelated to a storyline but not without purpose. Later, the dead boy’s teenage sister uses that same last phrase. On a wanton night out, she muses on the preference for casual sex over “early resistance to love’s demands…,” has sex with men or women “who seem healthy and vital and safe. Something empty that feels good. Meaningless but not without purpose…” The sister’s loving identification with her lost brother is profound, feeling him “sometimes in her fingers, riding on the breath of her lungs…. She wonders how long this feeling will last. In most ways, she hopes it always will.”
Light-handed, far seeing, Milliken can allow his story to unfold through his characters. He “opens to another world,” as philosopher and writer Jacob Needleman wrote of the poet Rilke, “and finds that in that other world, he is more fully and consciously in this world.” Deep into the novel, you may not know where it is going, may wonder about the plot, yet are drawn deeper into the tale by magically crafted moments. The novel’s journey gradually reveals itself in us, the way a great landscape emerges brush stroke by brush stroke, each emitting its own essential color.
Each character is an original, essential to the story as a star to its respective constellation, each someone you want to spend time with, all integral to the key protagonist’s search, whose identity emerges naturally only late in the novel. This story is a composition of vignettes, is many stories, among them a struggle for redemption and a ghost story, not the kind you associate with the genre, but with moments that remind me of magic realism, which highlight how we live daily at the fringe of mystery. Douglas Milliken, himself a fresh star I believe will find a place among constellations of revered writers. Like his characters, he is good company.
—Martin Steingesser is author of three books of poems and is Portland Maine’s Inaugural Poet Laureate 2007-09.