Guest Review: Mary Akers

bittermilk.jpg Bitter Milk
John McManus
Picador
208 pp.

John McManus’ startling debut novel Bitter Milk tells the emotional coming-of-age story of nine-year-old Loren Garland. Loren is an awkward, overweight, fatherless child growing up haphazardly in the mountains of Tennessee with a mother who is acutely unhappy in her female skin.

Loren’s story comes to us through the voice of Luther, a young boy who is by turns presented as Loren’s imaginary friend, his evil alter ego, and even a twin who died at birth but retains a sort of omniscient dominion over his surviving sibling. Luther-as-narrator speaks directly to the reader, as well as maintaining the ability to speak freely with both Loren and Loren’s mother. This is a tricky position for a narrator to hold and at times the various relationships become confusing as we are fed bits of insight through Luther’s quixotic (and quotationless) first-person narrative:

That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, I said. I never thanked anyone for creating me.

You say everything’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard.

That’s because everything you say gets dumber each time. Anyway, I didn’t ask her to bring me into the world.

She didn’t bring you into the world.

Yes she did.

No she didn’t.

Yes she did.

And that was the last thing I said to him, because I was too bound by the terms of the wager, and it was time to abide, and wait. Loren went to bed and lay awake most of the night. When he awoke the next morning, Mother was gone.

The “wager” between Mother and Luther remains largely unexplained (as does the means by which imaginary Luther can speak to Mother as well as Loren), although we do find out that the wager has something to do with Loren choosing between Mother and Luther and thereby growing up.

Mother’s reason for leaving, by contrast, remains a mystery only to Loren, as the reader learns on page one that Opal Avery Garland is not happy as a woman, wears overalls, blue jeans, and a chest binder, and goes by Avery, rather than Opal. In fact, the whole extended family (as well as the entire town) seems to know exactly what the mysterious “hospital visit” will do for Loren’s troubled mother. However, even when Loren finds a letter in the mailbox of Mother’s girlfriend, addressed to Mr. Garland and outlining fees for a double mastectomy, he remains puzzled as to the meaning of her disappearance.

Since Loren is otherwise a smart, perceptive child, this contrived confusion becomes Bitter Milk‘s main failing. (Further exacerbated by the scenes with Mr. Ownby, the principal, who we are led to believe is Loren’s real father, although Loren never suspects, despite the many clues.) Time and again, the reader, the narrator, and the writer all seem to be having a joke at Loren’s expense. We all get it. He still doesn’t. Poor, pitiful Loren.

Far more satisfying would have been the chance to see Loren struggle openly with gender and identity issues, instead of adopting a forced naivet

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