I reviewed Hap & Hazard and the End of the World: A Novel (Bellevue Literary Press) by Diane DeSanders for Lone Star Literary Life. "This is not a romanticized version of childhood, though the conclusion is pitch-perfect. This is a girl discovering cause and effect, exploring boundaries, feeling for the shape of her life, like the bullfrog trapped in their backyard swimming pool, “ranging the shape and size of the pool, being the shape and size of the pool, forgetting that there was ever anything else but the shape and size of the pool.”
Hap & Hazard and the End of the World: A Novel
Bellevue Literary Press
Paperback, 978-1-9426-5836-8 (also available as an e-book, an audio book, and on Audible), 288 pgs., $16.99
January 9, 2018
Dick and Jane are well off, living with their three daughters in late 1940s Dallas when there were still cows and cotton fields out Preston Road. There are maids, cooks, yardmen, shopping at Neiman’s, dining at the Adolphus, and garden parties where the women are “talking chummily yet guardedly together out on the patio with their beautiful clothes and their diamond-cut ankles, sleek birds circling, feathers out.”
But Dick returned injured and broken from World War II. He’s in constant pain that mixes into an unstable compound with humiliation and frustration at his disfavored status at his father’s car dealership, Lone Star Oldsmobile and Cadillac, where he plays second to his brother. Dick explodes frequently and violently at “intolerable imperfections,” terrorizing his family, friends, pets, strangers, and inanimate objects.
The story is told through the first-person narration of the oldest daughter, seven years old, an anxious, imaginative child, adrift, neglected and lonely, confused by the grown-ups whom she should be able to trust to protect her. “If only I could have a big brother or even a big sister,” she laments, “someone older, or just someone—I need someone—who will tell me at least what it is that we are pretending.”
Hap & Hazard and the End of the World: A Novel is Diane DeSanders’s first book. DeSanders is a fifth-generation Texan who inexplicably lives in Brooklyn, New York. Happily, her Texan bona fides are on ample display in this charming yet heart-wrenching debut about a single tumultuous, pivotal year in the life of a young girl.
In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The author’s choice of Dick and Jane for the parents’ names tells us that this unhappy family is not unusual, is in fact typical in the fact of their unhappiness, but the details are important, as is the fact that the child narrator remains nameless.
She relates vignettes representative of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this coming-of-age year, full of pathos in the partial understanding and magical thinking of a child. She desperately wants to believe, to have faith, in all sorts of things—God, Santa Claus, the Easter Rabbit, the adults she must depend upon—but her inquisitive mind demands proof. “I think some stories are real and some are not,” she thinks, “but grown-ups do not seem to want to tell you which are which.”
DeSanders’s word choices are precise, her style fluid, her imagery frequently delightful, as when Aunt Celeste shuffles cards for bridge, “her fingers dancers, the cards acrobats.” The child who narrates her world is sometimes daydreaming, sometimes caught in the rain (“I run out, climb the slippery wooden fence, run, slip on wet grass, fall down, get up, run, run, run”). She negotiates high-stakes playground politics (“a contest as vicious as that in any chicken yard”). Other times she’s sweetly comic: “I’d recently realized grown-ups don’t know what you’re doing if they’re not looking at you,” she tells us. “Although you have to watch out for the sides of their eyes.”
This is not a romanticized version of childhood, though the conclusion is pitch-perfect. This is a girl discovering cause and effect, exploring boundaries, feeling for the shape of her life, like the bullfrog trapped in their backyard swimming pool, “ranging the shape and size of the pool, being the shape and size of the pool, forgetting that there was ever anything else but the shape and size of the pool.”
“How much more they might accomplish if only they could talk to each other.” DeSanders quotes Jane Goodall in an epigraph opposite her author’s note. Goodall was talking about chimpanzees, but the sentiment is aptly chosen for DeSanders’s characters, a nuclear family in perpetual danger of fission.