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The Dead of August by Panayotis Cacoyannis, reviewed by Casey Dorman

The Dead of August

Panayotis Cacoyannis

Amazon Digital Services LLC



The esteemed critic and novelist William Gass once claimed that novels require stories, literature does not. The Dead of August has a story, and unlike some of Gass’ novels—Middle C, for instance—the story has a plot. But the plot is not what this novel is about. It’s about character, the nature of reality, and words. And the words are a pyrotechnic display, providing enough pleasure in themselves to satisfy readers who enjoy what Gass would call, “literature.” 

James Linthwaite is a an obituarist; he writes obituaries for the London Herald. We never get to read any of his obituaries, but we hear about them. They are about “the tortured souls of those middling celebrity types who do have a talent of sorts – on occasion even a talent to speak of - but whose needy ambition exponentially exceeds it.” And he writes these obituaries “euphemistically” using “vastly more subtle and sophisticated one-off inventions” to describe what otherwise would be tragic or tragic-comic lives, depending, probably, upon one’s sense of humor. In fact, an anonymous reviewer’s claim that “Mr Linthwaite is able to wrest a sense of the perversely comic tragedy of existence, and through the paradox which his subjects embody, distil the very essence of our lives - of what it is, so absurdly, to be human,” is an almost perfect description of what Cacoyannis provides us in The Dead of August and its story of James, his acquaintances and his family.

James’ life is, for no particular reason except perhaps middle age ennui, if not disintegrating, at least sinking low enough to raise troubling questions in his mind. Why do he and his wife never have sex anymore? Does she value him or his work? Why is his son so contemptuous of him? His wife accuses him  of being “too abstract, …My focus was soft. My perception was fuzzy. I never paid attention.” In his words he’s a “Bigger Picture man.” In fact he regards that as the “hub of my character, and much more encompassing than a mere trait.” But in truth, the fact of the forest eludes him as he gazes at the trees.

Does James misunderstand himself? Probably no more than the next person, although he ponders the question more deeply (though without penetrating its surface), and with brilliant, often hilarious and sometimes perversely euphemistic, inner dialogue to which we are privy because of the first person narrative. But he understands his peers and family even less than he understands himself, and they appear to understand themselves not terribly more than he does. James’ real problem seems to be that this all too human characteristic of failing do understand what is happening within or around him leads him to passively accept the directions provided by others; he does not take charge of his own life.

The plot of the novel is simple, but inventive. A mysterious invitation to attend a week-long “happening” at the country home of a wealthy recluse arrives. Without anyone ever saying what the happening is to be, James is urged by his wife and editor (whom he suspects are having an affair) to head to the country for a week and attend the event. He has no inner sense of whether he should or should not go, he vacillates, makes up his mind not to then changes his mind to fit a minor conversational exigency and ends up going. Prior to that, we are treated to a dizzying sequence of meetings with his editor, with the sports writer who will take over the obituaries during his absence, with the sports writer’s sister, to whom James is attracted. None of these people proves to be whom he or she first appears to be.

Once at the country estate of the eccentric, who has assumed an identity as “Max,” we learn that the man is planning a happening at an avant garde gallery and that James is one of three people who, over a period of time, have been invited for a week to visit Max and pen a 900 word obituary of him.

We can guess that the “happening” will include Max’s demise, but James, faithful to type, fails to anticipate this. At any rate, the actual event doesn't occur until a year after James is thrown out of his house by his wife, with the help of his son, for reasons he of course fails to comprehend. In fact, his understanding is hampered by his focus upon details at the expense of the “Bigger Picture,” showing us how little James understands himself.

In the end, Max commits suicide  during the happening, James is shocked but uses his debilitating reaction to wangle his way back into the good graces (and house) of his wife, and is back writing his obituaries, but this time less worried about his sex life, the wanderings of his wife, and has taken up an affair with the owner of the gallery (who was at one time a lesbian, the object of desire of the unsuspecting dictatorial editor, and has now reverted to heterosexuality). The editor, with whom James had suspected his wife was having an affair, accidentally suffocates himself while attempting a sexual scene copied from James’ wife’s best-selling pornographic book. James is taken by surprise, another intricate example of his misapprehension of the character of those around him. James finally decides not to be untrue to his wife, and the book ends with a titillating suggestion that he had been right all along about his wife’ affair with his editor.

In Cacoyannis’ novel Bowl of Fruit (1907), Jack Faro, the protagonist, searches for an identity by copying that of others—Picasso, Kafka— and then learns that everything he thought was true about himself and his history was not. James Linthwaite is continually learning that everything he thought about the people around him was wrong, or at least only a glimpse of one side of them. He never quite addresses his own lack of self-understanding and as a result, he never grasps the forces that are propelling him hither and thither. I’ve read enough reviews of The Dead of August to realize that such a character irritates or even angers some readers, who demand the main character of a novel be more “appealing.” I would hazard the suggestion that such readers are denying, or at least underestimating, the degree to which James is each of us. He never realizes that he doesn’t have a clue why he does what he does or what is “happening” around him, but do I dare say, most of us don’t either? It’s a painful realization, but one that Cacoyannis presents with brilliant, verbally glistening humor. It was a book that, for me,  was an immense pleasure to read.

Casey Dorman

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