Death is always bearing down in Dennis Must’s somber, disquieting novel, The World’s Smallest Bible (Red Hen Press, 232 pages). Death knocks on the window above the bed shared by brothers Ethan and Jeremiah Meuller in the small town of Hebron, in north central Pennsylvania; death is in the hand-me-downs they receive as gifts from the parents of soldiers who have just been killed in World War II; death brews inside their suicidal mother Rose, who has been scorned by their father; death dogs at their Aunt Eva, a stripper at the Elks Club; and death badgers their neighbor, Stanley Cuzack, as he tries to invent a perpetual motion machine. Half suffocating himself, Must’s narrator, Ethan, tries to push himself away.
The boys are about ten and eight when their mother orders the younger Jeremiah back into the children’s bedroom. She’s had it sharing her bed with her son, just another reminder of the man who’s supposed to be there and isn’t. Ethan, she says, is in charge of the boy now. A boy’s room is in fact a place of mystery and vision, a world unto itself, infinite and entirely parochial all at once. It’s here that Ethan’s dead friend Jimmy raps on the window, here that a glow-in-the-dark Jesus burnishes Ethan’s sense of righteousness, here that cracks in the ceiling have become the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Ganges, the Danube.
Must’s point is that children don’t suffer for being trapped, even in a town where “no man was anything.” They can imagine their way out of it. But as the boys grow older they find it impossible to ignore the suffering and sexualized madness of adults; none of them, it seems, can abide mortality, least of all their father, who numbs time with the bottle and floozies. Ethan’s reaction, like his mother’s, is to withdraw. He goes to church and he watches Stanley Cuzack next door, building his machine. “Stanley sang too,” says Ethan,
But he crooned for immortality in the A&P encyclopedia. Papa warbled for dames. A male bird never sated, willing to die, nay drown, in the Big Run of Lust.
Both males possessed.
I hadn’t yet become addicted to the scent of gash as had my father.
But the more aggressive Jeremiah has. While Ethan watches Cuzack madly puttering, Jeremiah begins “hanging out with the rowdies and their chickadiddies” at Capezio’s service station. He wants to confront life, to test the borders—childhood first, the town limits next, then the extent of speed and sound as an airman in the military. If he can fly, he can most certainly escape Hebron’s maudlin scene. Cuzack’s seeming failure is proof he’s going to have to if he is to survive.
Must has written two short story collections before this novel, much of which was excerpted in literary magazines. He’s a searching writer, able to transcribe madness and instability, the wrack of obsession and the weariness of giving in. Reality, in Must’s hand, is always flirting with the abyss and this gives his prose, perhaps unlike his characters, an expansiveness and wonder, quite beyond the ordinary.
–Nathaniel Popkin, author of Lion and Leopard, 2013
I’d told my brother about the sailboat bedsheets one evening.
Well, now, Popeye saw one of the dinghies in our creek. “It has a bicycle light on its bow,” he said. “And a steering wheel from an old Dodge sedan like Mama’s. Cricket’s motioning we take a sail in the storm. He says you can steer, Ethan.”
“Aint nothin’ down there in the creek,” I shot, turning my back to him.
“Cricket Tinsley says it someday flows into the Ohio and from there to the Mississippi. You still gonna tell me about Huck and Jim?”
“When they get to the sea, Ethan, is that like Heaven?”
“Well, since all these rivers on the ceiling go somewhere, and the quarry creek out back goes somewhere, and since you and me are growin’ up to go somewhere—are we all headed to the sea that ain’t anywhere on our ceiling? Is it somewhere up in there like Heaven? Is it when we die, Ethan? Is that the sea?”
“Jesus needs a shine,” I said, aiming to change the subject.
I flicked on the bed lamp and Popeye dutifully took Christ off the hook, bathing Him in the incandescent glow.
But Jeremiah searched my face for a response to his question.
“Don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know where the so-called sea is. Maybe it is Heaven. We just don’t know.”
He looked fearful again…shades of the first night we slept together.
“You won’t leave me, will you, Ethan?”
‘Of course not.”
“I mean we’ll go to sea together, right?”
“Tinsley ain’t my brother. Good night, Popeye.”
He pressed the warm-bodied crucifix against my cheek. “Remember, you promised.”
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