This is a unique American novel, written in the language of the heartland before Jesus became a pawn in the political battle for the American soul. It is written in a subdued, subtle, understated lyrical style. It is as rich and diverse as America herself. It is at once a romance complete with trains, whorehouses, steel mills, and the death of the drive-in-movie theater and a coming of age novel in which the protagonist emerges from the chrysalis to transform into a singing butterfly.
Here, in Hush Now, Don’t Explain (Coffeetown Press, 287 pages), Dennis Must cuts a swath a mile wide and generations deep through the America of the lost dream. On a pilgrimage across a spoiling land and on a quest for lost parents, the dual protagonists—Honor and Billy—experience America as raw and pure and as complex as she has ever been.
“[in New York City] there’s a colossal woman rising out of its harbor. On July fourth she shimmers in the sun, and Staten Island ferries steam-whistle and Gotham’s fire boats spray jets of water up against her copper ass. You can crawl up inside her, too, and look all across the city.”
The story is told through Honor’s eyes. We see what she sees, we hear what she hears. What she hears and sees is a complicated land peopled with dreamers, hookers, and railroad men dying as the railroads died. There is music, lots of it, as Must tells us the history of that very American art-form—Jazz. The girl, Honor, becomes a woman, while Billy, the boy, finds his own song. An American Orpheus, he first finds the beat then the tune. Women in this novel run from the angelic and pure to the used, tired, worn out ones eaten by time and the dollar:
“A willowy brunette, her magenta lipstick a dramatic foil to her milky cast, sat in a dark corner, impassively smoking a cigarillo, her legs crossed, with one counting out seconds…”
Hush Now, Don’t Explain is a road novel running right down the middle of America. It is a novel about rivers and trains and cities—the panorama is broad and very intense. It is an enticing novel of transformation in which we see the characters grow as the nation has grown. Must’s poetic intensity drives the language that gives us snapshot after snapshot of America and the people who live in her without straying from the heartbeat of a pure and natural American speech:
“We watched an aging blonde in a miniskirt perform on an ice rink in Rockefeller Center, while daisy males, sporting flowing scarves, executed figure-eights about her. The golden state of Prometheus overlooked the miniature figures.”
And the river, the water….As rich in water imagery as it is detailed in character studies, this novel shows life as a long, slow flowing river and Honor and Billy are floating on it. The parallels to another American who wrote about rivers buoy up Honor and Billy who are reporting on an America Twain could not know but anticipated.
“…we were wanderers, passengers in the hull of his little boat on the waters of this vast country, looking for the next picture show, because most everything was turning out to be the same…” “That night I lay down on the floor of the caboose, staring out the cupola windows and praying Mr. Willard could feel the heat rise off my body into the hull of his dory, washing him with sun. The moon puddling in his open and empty valise alongside me.”
This is also a novel of a dying Industrial America. It is about factories and trains and the men who work in the factories and the men who drive the trains. Two particular images in this work of concise images stand out. Honor and Billy, on the road, seek refuge for the night:
“…we sought sleeping quarters outside a furnace room where men wrestled fiery ingots to a cooling platform. The workers appeared miniature, as if to betray how their aspirations had conspired to dominate them…”
Here, the industrial dream is so huge it dwarfs the men in it. This particular perspective reminds me of the way Piranesi draws the Roman ruins and stunts the people into minuscule beings not worthy of living in the same space as the giants who built the world he has drawn. The second image achieves that rare union of religion and industrial might without a hint of dogma:
“These colossal land ships (trains) with spoked iron wheels taller than three of us…these were the engines of our dreams…Not like in the Pillar of Fire Tabernacle, where Christ hung on a cross and a single candle flickered under this feet…Everything inside the round house was glistening black, oil-oozing soot, except the hope curling out from under the bellies of those locomotives and their stacks, rising right up to the clerestory windows, then out to the sky and heaven.” (109)
This is big novel of change and heart-break. It is a novel that digs into the racist nature of American life all the while setting the characters on a quest for the American soul. Honor comes of age in two exciting and vivid scenes:
“but I kept minding the females appearing in the Automat’s glass façade and tasted a budding urge at sixteen to slip into silk panties and lace underwear. To pull nylons, the smoky kind, over my feet, whose nails I’d polish cinnabar, to walk in spiked heels, to shake out my hair and breathe an alien perfume like some we passed…”
In her second scene, the girl becomes a woman and that change echoes not just the backstory, but the role of women in another time and place:
“I knew exactly what to do. There was something very arousing about undressing before her mirror. Standing across from Marilyn, who was staring at me….seeing what kind of wemen I was going to be. When I slipped on her panties—they had the fragrance of violet sachet about them…I slipped on the brassiere and again stood this way, then that, in front of the mirror. I placed my hands on my now covered breasts and began sobbing like somebody had returned to me, as if these were hers and not Honor’s. The woman looked out of the mirror at me, extending her arms, and pulled me to her and kissed me softly.”
Hush Now, Don’t Explain is a gorgeous novel told in a gentle voice and bearing witness to the true art possible from the pure American language. I have not read such a fine novel—controlled and wild at the same time—in a long while.
–Jack Remick, Author of Gabriela and The Widow, 2013