A few pages into Tariq Shah’s new novel, the narrator Ant (for Antioch) tells of his drunk mother juggling fingerling potatoes, bell peppers, tablespoons, a salt shaker – quite the variety – while she cooked dinner. “By her third glass of merlot she’d be on to the chef’s knife, the cleaver, three or four champagne flutes.” This childhood memory is brief, hilarious and an early example of this novel’s indisputable sparkle within its atmospheric darkness. The scene also showcases the amusing weirdness of Ant’s life.
Consider Ant’s odd attraction to funerals. “With the last of my loved ones now long dead, I find funerals kind of fun,” he declares in the novel’s first line. This may seem off-putting, but it’s not, as we get to know this directionless young man who deems the mindset “a kind of social pursuit” of people-watching among the grief-stricken.
You see people for who they are, and they don’t mind being seen, and it’s lovely in a way, that unabashed flawed-ness in the face of such heavy exposure, perhaps never to happen again.
Not for a moment does this character’s identity come across as morbid, more so imaginative for the way he talks about fake living room set-ups in funeral homes along with the bowl of mints, the heavy drapes and the empty cupboards. He attends funerals as a means to stay connected to his grief and to wrestle with the meaning of the mysterious end. You can just see him opening those cupboards we’ve all seen in funeral homes but never considered inspecting.
When the book Whiteout Conditions opens, Ant is on his way to Chicago to attend the funeral of a childhood friend whose death by dog attack made national news. The deceased’s cousin, Vince, picks Ant up at O’Hare, and they begin the drive north to Big Bend, Wisconsin, during a heavy winter storm. The story assumes the structure of a weekend car ride during which typical things take place: the battery dies on Vince’s classic Oldsmobile Cutlass; they stop at Arby’s for dinner; they spend the night at a highway motel; and they get a drive-thru breakfast the next morning. Most typical, of course, is all that time to talk, and for these two it’s a stage for toxic male engagement, or as Ant describes their relationship, “warring, in our constant, low-grade way.”
They’ve reunited, after being out of touch for a few years. Vince resents Ant for leaving their Midwestern life, as if he and their friends weren’t good enough for Ant, who headed somewhere east after high school. Vince’s frustration over Ant’s funereal obsession and other ways he’s changed erupts in exclamations, What is the matter with you! In turn, Ant can’t figure out why Vince avoids sharing information, and why Vince explodes over his concern about the engine warning light. Their verbal interactions are at times humorous, uncomfortable, angry, indifferent, agreeable, caustic – a full range of men skirting feelings of grief, loneliness and a sense of meaninglessness.
Most powerful in this narrative are the vignettes, each like a vibrant mini-story, as colorful as the drunk-juggling mother. They are the stepping stones of the back story, memories given to enlighten us about the past but not detract from the present weekend pilgrimage. One of the best ones is involves Vince and Ant as boys buying the now-deceased Ray, that “dweeby little spaz with coke-bottle glasses and an overbite,” an orange popsicle, and then Ray feeding the popsicle to a chained dog named Bullets suffering in an unbearable heat wave. It’s foreshadowing at its best, beginning for us the worry about how Ray died. Also, there’s the story of Wendy Malone, Ant’s girlfriend, who’s killed by a hit-and-run driver, whom Ant remembers during sleepless hours in the motel room.
She was the last one. And everything I had hoped for, feared, wrestled with, regretted, day-dreamt—it all fit snug in a kind of suitcase I’d kept in a closet in my heart that I was now free to hurl off a bridge. No one would see. There was nothing left to worry about. I was made whole.
They arrive late for the funeral the next day. Ant’s drawn into playing a version of mumblety-peg with former friends in the backyard of Ray’s parents. Afterward, Ant looks for Vince at a neighbor’s house. When I realized where the story was headed, I froze with apprehension and hesitantly read forward, hoping the ending would be bearable. I don’t want to give it away, so won’t share my one vulnerability in movies and books where I have to check out. Suffice it to say, I didn’t have to do that.
By now we know Ant describes himself as a walking tragedy, but Tariq Shah slips in two words in the end that bring simple clarity to what he feels beneath all that toxic maleness. These two words arrive in the last line on the last page, when Ant makes a pact with Bullets and refers to the abused dog and himself as “us strays.” Ant is not a walking tragedy, but someone who’s very alone. This small book, more novella than novel, boldly dark, strangely funny, and surprisingly sincere in its toughness, hits the heart in that final scene.