In the opening pages of Don't Be Afraid, a library explodes in the middle of the night, robbing a 17-year-old boy of his older brother. In the ensuing pages, the boy narrates the separate trajectories of each member of his family as they metaphorically — or literally, in the case of his father — attempt to sift through the rubble.
"To prepare for this book, I read a lot of the clinical literature about grief counseling," says Steven Hayward, professor of creative writing at Colorado College, about his second novel. "I mean, the case histories are littered with people whose families fall apart after the loss of a child. I was more interested in the people who didn't."
Thus the story, released last month by Knopf Canada, crystallizes around "these moments of trying to understand," Hayward says. "What would make it OK? Is there any kind of atonement? If you think about the word atonement: at-ONE-ment. What does that even mean? How do you deal with the death of a brother?"
If this sounds like heavy content for Colorado College's next live author reading event, hang on a moment. As Hayward himself will tell you, this essentially "very sad book" is suffused with a great deal of quiet (albeit very dark) humor.
For example, regarding his research for the book, I asked: "What else was in the back of your head besides the clinical literature about grief in families?"
"Well, I wanted to write about Jim Morrison and the Doors ..."
And that's where Don't Be Afraid jumps the tracks. As the narrator himself says, "This is what I tell people: 'I'm Jim Morrison of Cleveland Heights, Ohio.' It's a sort of joke, like saying I'm no one at all."
The glaring and omnipresent disconnect between Jim's rock-star name and his incomplete sense of self lends a freshness to the typical litany of a family reeling from a critical wound. We see a father engaged in a fruitless search for reasonable evidence of the "why" of his son's demise; a mother who retreats into unreason and bizarre behavior; but we see them through the eyes of Jim, whose issues with his name comprise the prism through which we see everyone else. If their grief is typical, their journey to healing is anything but.
At the center is Jim, whose process of grieving for his brother becomes a journey of identity. As he explains in the book's opening pages, his name seems like a joke — but if it is, then he himself is the punch line.
He's "a slightly awkward, slightly overweight 17-year-old," Hayward says, and "he's grown up in the dual shadow of his older brother and of Jim Morrison of the Doors."
As with many whose names have been previously inhabited, Jim is plagued by the sense that his identity really ought to have belonged to someone else. The fact that for him, that "someone else" is his popular, high-achieving brother means that with the precipitating action of the plot, our narrator finds — or rather loses — himself as a vessel without an anchor.
Also wound into the narrative are several other Jim Morrisons: There's James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree, from the poem by A.A. Milne, and the James Morrison who was one of the mutineers on H.M.S. Bounty in 1789. Most prominently, though, there's the narrator's father.
For the first half of the novel, the younger James Fortitude Morrison is caught up in his forensic-investigator father's search for the truth. But as Fort Morrison begins to confront the possibility that he won't find the answers, his son begins to discover a different set of answers entirely.
"Jim really grows through the process, becomes a different guy, becomes more of a responsible human being," says Hayward. "It's very much a growing-up."
Jim's own arc offers an elegant analogue to the process his family is undergoing as a whole. As Hayward says, theirs is a story of at-one-ment, an X-ray of a unit that is shattered and slowly knits back together.
"I was interested in the way in which they somehow stick together and go on with the rest of their lives," he says. "To me, that's the miracle, that's the thing that I wanted to understand. It's a very human resolution. They're left with each other."