Matthew Paris / Review
Dead Man's Coat by Burt Lee
Available on the Amazon website
Burt Lee's Dead Man's Coat is a stunningly original masterpiece of a novel that takes its point of departure from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. It traces the travels of a twelve and thirteen year old Irish boy in America, sometimes with an older Afro-American companion, though a natal country that has deprived its own citizens of both land and bread.
After his father was killed, his mother had died of consumption and then his brother washed into the sea on an Atlantic Ocean voyage as a stowaway, he was deposited in a fearsomely bellicose America at the beginning of the Civil War. The novel is a semi-fictional account of real events. In the novel it takes the form of a secret diary recorded later, much after he begins to move into the West during a time when men were on equal ground without empire, commonly and casually killing and enslaving each other.
As grisly as this tale might seem, Lee's wonderful Irish-American dialect and cunning sentences make the narrative at times funny, always beautiful. It's a delight to read, sentence by sentence rich in its resonances as a thick, steaming, rum-laden pudding, though the surface craft is always transparent. Structurally, like Huckleberry Finn, it juxtaposes horrific events where people die or when alive treat each other with something less than charity, against a kind of miraculous unfolding of Creation day by day, where the energy of life itself is evoked by the slow, forward propulsion of the story. In both Twain's and Lee's book there can't be any formal main action or neat resolution because the tale lives off the florid and perilous design of Nature itself. Both books are told first person singular and are in dialect spoken by bottom people; the reader is given the added dimension of judging the inferentially detached level of the tale as well as its meaning and veracity.
This pithy book never dwells on its deeper inferences, but one is invited to meditate on the inhumanity of men to others characteristic of some of our personal and political inheritances as a species. It’s a particularly Irish focus, since the Irish have met their antagonists with courage and honor in both America and the British Isles and their history has been notably difficult in both places. Since all humanity and even various humanoid cousins of ours have had variants of the same daunting history, this fiction is a fable for us all, if we're vaguely human in an ordinary way.
A great read, it might be a textbook offering in an optimal school, for Americans to savor the unwritten story of our peculiar species, with our capacity for kindness or wickedness, as well as our equivocal national and human legacy.
Dead Man's Coat is one of those rare books that changes the reader afterward. It isn't polemic. In fact the first person singular of the dialect narrative invites detachment and irony. Yet it reminds one by subtle inference not only how badly the Irish people were treated by the British and 19th century Americans, but perhaps more numinously how the history of the human march through time hasn't been all that different from the narrator's horrific experience. This book is filled with grievous loss yet has no bathos or anything pathetic about it. In fact one is left with admiration for the characters in this Civil War novel, who meet all the challenges they face even if occasionally they are destroyed by the endless cruelty in all directions in this landscape.
Its dark description of the hero's bellicose fortune is pretty hair-raising, at least partially because it is described purely physically. The griefs and mortal wounds of the heart people feel are only implied. Never sentimental, accepting of the evils of the world on two continents , this book asks by inference that the reader consider (privately on a midnight, perhaps) whether guilty in one’s own life of accommodating or abetting the injuries that humans sometimes do out of desperation, indifference or malice to other human beings.
These poems themselves are warm and mystical like kittens. They crawl from page to page with catlike grace as you caress them with your eyes and breath, as you stare them in the eye you become cautious like them and don’t want your silence to be disturbed by anyone while reading.
Today’s world is very much in the need of such poetry. The world that has lost serenity, hope and peacefulness. With virtuosic, masterful observation of alienation, love, trust and in general, of all that symbolizes life – and of course cat’s nature – Patricia Carragon creates and describes a mystical world that may be encountered in everyday life but hardly noticed by many.
What she has to say is wonderfully tempered, measured and precise. Here everything has its perfect place – each word, each sound and each punctuation mark. This book is a mystical union of words, sounds and...kittens, with which you will fall in love after the first read and which will become entirely yours, along with all its pictures.
This book is awaiting you. It will entrust its mysteries to you.