Bill Clegg - photo by Mackenzie Stroh.
In Bill Clegg’s debut novel, Did You Ever Have a Family, Rick, a minor character, has the task of telling his perspective about the fictional Wells’ town in the real Litchfield County, Connecticut, and about the townspeople. Rick, a first-person narrator, opens his eponymous chapter saying, “My mom made Lolly Reid’s wedding cake” (47). Rick describes the kind of cake that his mother made, from where she got the ingredients, and what kind of cakes she made from scratch for Rick’s weddings and for his sister Amy. Rick says that he is a caterer and owned a small food business in Wells. He wouldn’t charge June Reid after the tragedy of her house burnt to ashes on the eve of her daughter’s wedding, when she lost her daughter, her daughter's groom, her ex-husband, and Luke Morey, her much younger and biracial boyfriend who was Rick’s friend and schoolmate. Through Rick’s eyes, the reader takes a closer look at the dynamic of Wells’ inhabitants, the assumptions they make, the corrosive gossip, the shuffling of truths that different people behold about others while interacting over the same geography of the mythical small city inspired in Sharon, CT, Clegg’s birthplace.
Through Rick’s perspective, we learn about Luke, and the Moreys, vital to connect the dots amongst the sections in the novel and perhaps aiding us to anticipate a third world, which reportedly, will center in the Morey’s family, and which working title is The Ballad of Angel Morey. Clegg’s superb structure of Did You Ever Have a Family employs multiple narrators, in the first and third person, and multiple POV’s. The assembly is original—instead of chapters, sections are compartmentalized by the names of first and secondary characters’ perspectives, which grants that their voices are always heard. Another unconventional author’s decision is that the novel counts on three protagonists, June Reid, Lydia Morey, and Silas Moore, who set on an internal quest to grapple with grief, guilt, and regret in the face of the unthinkable loss of an entire family. They all seek forgiveness, possibly self-forgiveness, and to regain a shred of hope. Though Rick is a minor character, Clegg’s vision has given him a more significant mission in his brief passage of about fifteen pages. Rick introduces his mom at the end of his chapter, and thus, Clegg foreshadows the beginning of The End of the Day, his second novel, while introducing one of its three protagonists (60):
“I sat in my childhood driveway and watched my mother turn on the porch light, something she always does before opening the front door, since I was a kid and even in broad daylight. I watched her shut the door behind her and pull her thin housecoat tight around her bony shoulders and button the top two buttons. I thought of her squeezing all those damned oranges and cracking all those coconuts for the last two days, sprinkling the little silver balls that the Moreys were now crunching in their tobacco-stained teeth down at the firehouse. […] Tears and snot were everywhere, and here was my mother, making her way from the stoop to the driveway, shuffling her slippers, old. She’d left the glasses in the house and I could see her squinting to see me more clearly […] This was my mother: both hands on the roof of the car, leaning into the window, half-blind, worried. […] I don’t think I’d ever see my mother as clearly as I did that day: sixty-six, widowed at fifty, a secretary at the elementary school for over thirty-five years, a single mom who raised two kids, who took care of her granddaughter while my divorced sister went to nursing school in Hartford; a breast-cancer survivor who let her grown son move in back with his nineteen-year-old wife and one year-old-boy.”
Enter Jackie, who, when she was a girl fell in the arms of one Floyd Howland and was aloft for the lapse of just a few seconds before her feet returned to the floor, and regret invaded her, “like eating the last spoonful of the perfect ice cream sundae, when the exact sensation of its magic was gone” (170). And so Jackie fell in love with the future father of her children. But now at the age of sixty-eight, she “winces at the memory of her youngest self believing that closeness to something great could protect her family, magically fortify them just by being near” (25).
Did You Ever Have a Family was published in 2015 by Scout Press, and Clegg’s The End of The Day also by Scout Press, was released on September 29, 2020 amidst a triple national crisis, and the novel Corona Virus pandemic. People have faced unsurmountable odds and have endured forced isolation, unemployment, grief, loss, and hopelessness. Both Clegg’s books revolve around a happenstance which changes the lives of those involved and determine new pathways—their destiny, their doom. These kinds of stories in fictional or nonfictional human experiences make us think about what is at stake, what is the truth, what we could lose. Indeed, these characters’ driven stories and plot-driven themes question and engage the semantics of family, friendship, forgiveness, hope, fate and agency, and above all, love and mortality.
Employing the same stylistic assembly, we meet Jackie, in the second eponymous chapter of The End of the Day, two years after the sweep of a life that Clegg presented via Rick’s perspective when he looks at his mom in his childhood’s driveway. The view is now from her bedroom, and we hear the sound of a “vinyl shade,” slapping the window near the foot of Jackie’s bed and see her rubbing her feet together, circling the pillow with both arms, and burrowing into its familiar softness. We hear robins and finches, the crows foreshadowing the surprises of the morning, and even the ticking and banging of the propane furnace coming from the basement, which immediately resonates with the ticking of the stove in June’s house in Did You Ever Have a Family. Although Jackie is in the liminal space between awake and asleep, her home, bed, and aged body inside her nightgown are vivid, thanks to Clegg’s fluid descriptions wrought with impeccable equilibrium, thus, awakening the reader’s all senses of perception and full suspension of disbelief. Rick’s vision of the driveway returns through Jackie’s eyes. Jackie sees Dana, a “diabolical ghost” from the past, arriving in a limousine. Jackie bolts the door and watches Dana from behind the window shades. Dana leaves a briefcase and a note by the modest house’s stoop for a reluctant Jackie who refuses to open the door to her estranged best friend, who she has not seen for almost fifty years.
Dana Isabel Goss inherited her great-grandparents George and Olivia Willing’s estate and her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, and so she knows her memory will soon be gone. Her mind oscillates like a pendulum, from the present instances of disorientation to the fifty-year-old past, however, so lucidly recalled. The omniscient narrator tells about Dana’s associative musings with precision, with fluid prose via Clegg’s sophisticated language and sensual word-choice. Dana’s thoughts dribble from her present time as a sixty-eight-year-old woman treated with contempt by the help that speaks to her as if asking a child to eat her vegetables, to Dana’s digressions into the past as far in time as to when she was nine years old. Dana recalls her first impressions of Jackie at the horses’ stable in Edgeweather, her weekend mansion. She muses on numerous occasions of bonding friendship while growing up during the decade that lasted their relationship, which was severed abruptly at the end of the fourth of July of 1969 picnic in the Well’s field of Hatch Pond. Trying to find the end of the thread amidst lapses from present blankness to past gaudiness, Dana knows that she must reveal her secrets before her memory is altogether gone. But her motive is redemption and absolution from the decisions that she made at the age of nineteen that impacted her best friend’s life and the life of Lupita, the Mexican daughter of Joe Lopez, the Edgeweather’s caretaker. Dana’s hands clutch onto a briefcase with her initials DIG, which contents trigger her realization. So, Dana embarks on the quest to excavate the truth and right all the wrongs her deceptions inflicted upon Jackie and Lupita, sealing three fates upon her own. Dana’s subsequent recollections and reminiscences move as a succession of events that she calls exhibits of good intentions, guilt, the notion of family, the yearning for a reunion, the fear of a lifetime’s oblivion, and the exhibit of the person whose life she’s doomed the most, Lupita.
Named after the Virgin of Guadalupe and her ángeles, Lupita comes as an apparition in Clegg’s mind. Still, she manifests in the novel multi-dimensionally, embodying the clashes of two cultures at once, so palpably that she, nevertheless, can’t ever belong except in the liminality of a world within where she retreats to survive. She is cognizant of her identity and of her experience. Always at odds in her being-in-place, Lupita’s mind is fully bilingual, and her perception of reality, although grounding, renders her presence intangible and unreachable to others. Whether she is inside a yellow car, a taxi van, in a parking lot, running away from bullies, praying inside a church, tiptoeing on the pristine lawn, searching for gems in a river, surrendering to an island’s ocean, Lupita is always in motion, though unable to follow a North Star. People see her black hair and her brown skin, but see first the stigma, and yet, something magical about her renders no clue of her enigma. Clegg’s expositions of Lupita’s emotional experience are relayed in the poetification of the ecosystems she inhabits at any given moment. Lupita’s relationship to place is so exceptional that Clegg’s redeems the curses and dooms of her existence with unbound kindness and surprising empathy as though he fully comprehended otherness. Lupita’s beauty bewitches Floyd, paradoxically, because she transports him to a place far away from the monotonous town and the prospects of a dull life like if she was a character in a movie (195-6):
"The girl was pushing a grocery cart outside of Trotta’s grocery in Millerton. She seemed roughly his age and had a long black hair tied in a thick, loose ponytail. It was the end of the day and the waning light cast dim sparks from the chrome on the cars in the parking lot. The purple and red sky marbled in the windshields […] and it felt as if had been transported to a beach town […] The loose strands of her gathered hair fell across her face, caught the last rays of sun, and wriggled in the wind like lit, electric fibers. […] He couldn’t stop staring."
Indeed, Lupita is ethereal, but she has trained herself to let go and survive because she is resilient. Even now, in Kauai, apparently restored, fully self-reliant and modestly thriving, sudden news wreak havoc in her mind, bringing back traumatic experiences from her life in Wells that she’s banished. Lupita’s secret, the darkest version of a truth, haunts her. It shows up like gravity pushing her into the bottom of an ocean and as though the sky above oppressed her with inevitable, unescapable grief. And yet, Lupita finds the way to feel “light as a paper” (306).
This triangularity of Dana, Jackie, and Lupita’s lives, their three versions of the truth meet however in the axis where power dynamics of class, race, and gender collide, determining chance, dooming choice. The axis is also Hap, and Hap is also tension. Clegg’s narrational tension never ceases to enthrall the reader’s attention as experience is a keystone in the apocryphal Wells, a town that becomes real as is securely nested in Litchfield County, Connecticut, and with characters resembling the next townspeople and references to life in Bethlehem, Boston, New York City, and Kauai. Clegg’s genius in Wells’ architecture lies in the magical elements embedded in the narrative but not abiding by the genre conventions of Magical Realism, for Clegg’s magic springs from his ecology of poetics.
No doubt, a life unfolds after the explosions of fire in the sky and ends blending someone’s toes into the sand and surrendering to the lightness of ocean water and rebellious waves. Clegg delves into long expositions of settings where the wind rushes through the branches of a surviving Elm, the reactions of its leaves, their importance, reminding us that greater forces surround us, ubiquitously. His descriptions of place capture nature’s cycles—the weather, the land, water bodies, trees, and birds are intertwined organically with the