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Book Review: A Long Day at the End of the World, by Brent Hendricks

July 2, 2013

longdayattheendoftheworldImagine discovering that the ashes in the urn on your mantle-piece aren’t the ashes of your great-grandmother; they may not even be human. Keep this feeling in mind as you read poet Brent Hendricks’ account of the darkest side of the Gothic South and what happened when bodies were tossed under a pool-table in a ditch for five years. In his debut memoir A Long Day at the End of the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Hendricks explores the complexity of finding out his father’s body was left to rot out in rural Georgia with hundreds of other corpses. Forced to confront his relationship with his father, as strained in life as it became in death, Hendricks takes us along for his pilgrimage to the “final place of unrest for a restless man.”

The Tri-State Crematory desecration featured a large series of crimes by Brent Marsh, a hometown football hero gone wrong. After his father died, Marsh didn’t exactly keep up the family business—dumping upwards of 300 bodies in metal caskets, ditches, and in the “fake lake” behind the crematory and offering grieving families a mix of animal-bone dust and artificial materials; “eventually—after a series of Gothic events, blackly fantastic—the full extent of the desecration was revealed.” It became a matter of national news, though Hendricks’ account is much more personal and raw than a list of names and facts.

Hendricks draws readers in with gritty imagery of the Southern landscape, both beautiful and haunting, and often connects it to historical events. As he treks through Tuscaloosa and other parts of Georgia, he recalls the journey of Hernando de Soto who sought gold but found none. He rants about Baptists and the Civil War and the failings of the South, directly transitioning to family anecdotes and poetic musings on the apocalypse and life and death.

Sometimes his whirlwind structures leaves us wondering where exactly we are in space, and whether or not Brent will ever reach the Tri-State Crematory and find some answers; though that’s probably exactly how he felt on the journey itself. Eventually, his true emotions emerge in his description of the scenes at Tri-State, injecting them into our minds so that they might begin to haunt us the way they do him. When talking about his own grief, he writes that “I couldn’t stop seeing the landscape of bodies strewn about the crematory grounds, piled up in vaults and tossed together in mass graves, scattered among the old mattresses, bottles, and pallets like more trash. I couldn’t stop imagining the eyes that were no longer eyes.” In the Epilogue, where Hendricks speaks to Greg Ramey of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, he is so haunted by the idea of his father’s eyeless sockets that he can’t bring himself to view images of his face when he was found. His raw connection and emotion attached to the face and the eyes, features associated commonly with the soul, tugs equally at readers’ emotions.

The narrative gets a bit bogged down by the historical ramblings, but the images of his journey and his personal memories tend to save it in most places. He’s out to “deal with” a serious cosmic disturbance in his world, and it’s hard to expect perfect structure. Hendricks certainly manages to mirror the sense of confusion and grief he felt at his father’s death, thinking not only of the lifeless body he never went to see at the wake or disinterment, but also of the man who pelted baseballs at him as a kid when he wasn’t performing to top-notch standards. His father’s bones refuse to let him walk away without some serious thought. But there is a limit to the loose connections, and when Hendricks starts talking about finding his Cherokee roots, providing neither narrative nor a logical connection to the rest of the book, I got lost.

The theme of resistance to change, of frustration at shifts in the natural order of things, pervades the narrative. Throughout the text, people’s lives are being disrupted; by the civil rights movement, the industrial revolution, consumerism, crime, religion, culture, racism, and general disturbance: “everything was disturbed ground.” Hendricks tries to grapple with the idea that everything will eventually be disturbed, but that in this disruption, new things can flourish. His description of flowers that sprout “in disturbed areas,” the blossoms that occupy ditches, roadsides, and ground torn up by backhoes, “a place where the earth was moved from here to there,” provide an objective correlate for this idea. He writes, “For five years the crematory backhoe dug pits and built mounds, divided the earth and piled it up, opened the ground and closed it. The metal edge leveled trees and heavy brush, crushed kuzdu and passionflower, chickenweed and thistle. An in so doing made a new place for all these things to grow.”

Though Hendricks’ apocalyptic ruminations are slightly confusing and dramatic, bordering on obsessive, they seem to connect to the way he feels treated by life—constantly visited by “The Shit Fairy” as his mother nicknames the unkind side of fate.

Though he denies spirituality or the sanctity of the body, Hendricks’ book is a deep exploration of these ideas. The final pages don’t exactly reveal whether or not Hendricks has found what he’s looking for, though maybe that’s exactly the point. This book is about exploring unmapped emotional territory and Hendricks’ emotional discourse will be a “ghost flower that might appear somewhere along [your] road.”

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