[Two Dollar Radio; 2020]
Ant’s drawn to funerals for the fun!; he’s got a death drive — nearly everyone he’s ever loved is gone — and the ritual provides a rambunctious expulsion of relief, a sacred sanctioned space to start shit with whoever’s left. Throwing salt in the wound means you’re still alive, right? There’s music, food, family. The comforting humpf of the officiant’s closed tome. Ant is maybe in his late twenties, newly orphaned, lonely, a pianist, sweet, leaking vulnerability and rage, and the protagonist of Tariq Shah’s debut novel, Whiteout Conditions. He flies home from Brooklyn to Chicago one wintery weekend to catch a ride with his best friend from childhood, Vince, to Vince’s younger cousin Ray’s wake in Wisconsin. That’s the plot, basically. It’s a tidy linear trajectory that emphasizes Shah’s strengths as a writer: slushy, lyric descriptions of Midwestern skies, tense jokes, slapstick discomfort, and the kind of loaded fuck-uppery one might recognize between two young men who used to be friends, family-level, and have now grown apart, absent of the emotional skills required to ask how the other one is anymore. The relationship between Ant and Vince (an asshole suburban dad, frequently high, the kind of guy who’s defensive about everything because he’s insecure, feels left behind, has a tender side) is at the heart of this melancholy-but-moving story about trauma, toxic masculinity, old friends, and giving up.
Whiteout Conditions — despite the solemn subject matter — is a bleakly humorous novel (clocking in at a dense 115 pages, you could call it a novella if you wanted), with spirited scenes of rowdy romping childhood reflections (taking kid Ray to get a bomb pop in the sweltering heat, watching kid Ray accidentally swing a loaded gun around the living room) and present pranky behavior (Ant and Vince getting their Arby’s server high, ditching the funeral after sneaking pills to Ray’s mom, playing a lightening round of Mumbly-peg with a guy named Bat Neck, kidnapping a dog, etc.). Ant has been spiraling for a while, and Vince doesn’t help; it’s one tragicomic scene after another (“You’re not as fun as I remember,” Bat Neck says to Ant; “You’re about the same,” Ant replies). Vince is continually putting up walls, in classic bro-style, and Ant is so wrecked by grief he can’t confess his sorrow without losing it. Their interactions are stilted, wary, and awkward under the weight of snubbed intimacy. In a representative conversation from the beginning of the book, just after they’ve gotten on the road, Ant asks Vince why the check-engine light is flashing in his car:
“I check the engine all the time,” [Vince] says, “and know what I see? A freaking engine.”
“Check engine means there’s something wrong. Like, low oil, or a belt’s about to break or something.”
“That’s what the oil light’s for. Think I don’t know how to drive?”
[ . . . ]
“Fine, I got it. I’m just saying how come the light’s on, that’s all.”
“The guy fixed the engine light, he — ”
“Then why is it on?”
[ . . . ]
Vince accelerates, takes the off-ramp at a borderline lethal velocity. I have to grip the handle not to knock heads with him. He just barely misses clipping a Lexus in the gas station lot we pull into.
Vince, like the impatient mediocre dad he is, insists the vehicle’s fine, but a scene or two later Ant’s pushing the dead car down a highway shoulder alone (Vince is steering) in the slush and mud, trying to shove them off at the next exit. They’re both stubborn, hurt, having a ball. Throughout Shah’s novel, his main characters bicker like parents who forgot to divorce, or co-workers who’ve resented each other so long they can’t remember why. There are cinematic echoes in the buddy comedy road-tripyness of it all; think of the dangerous desperation in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Thelma and Louise, but, you know, angrier, and on a short stint of I-94, barreling in a Cutlass toward Racine.
Ray’s death, the reader learns, was dramatic and violent (it made the news), and we’re halfway through the book before finding out that in addition to the recent passing of Ant’s mom via cancer, his father’s disappearance to who-knows-where, and the deaths of both grandparents, an old boss, an aunt, and a few friends, Ant’s ex-girlfriend, Wendy — his still-maybe true love — also died unexpectedly a few months earlier. Her passing, combined with Ray’s, have pooled in Ant’s soul in such a way as to cause an excruciating existential break in which Ant figures (via a long late-night meditation on the floor of a hotel room while Vince snores) that he’s got nothing left to lose. “How good it feels to have nothing to fear,” he thinks, “nothing tender left, not a single weak spot, to understand you are soon to be what the miserable world dreads and teaches its children to beware.”
Ant’s numbness is emphasized by Shah’s decision to only include information about Ant’s weekend adventure and a few associative memories in the narrative; Ant’s character rarely shares anything about himself or his current life in Brooklyn, focusing on the present moment so obsessively it’s as if his habit of noting the particular features of cloud formations or street garbage are the only things preventing him from sliding into ghosthood.
If one’s familiar with the disgusting sludgy stun of a Midwestern winter, they’ll appreciate the scene-setting sentences in Shah’s novel. When Ant gets off the plane in Chicago and finds a parking garage to smoke in, he notes, “Here the sky yawns white all day, then rips your head off like afterburners once the sun falls off the horizon.” Later, Shah writes of Ant and Vince’s drive through the city at rush hour, “Now, with the sunset’s cider glow banished to the lip of the imperial sky’s horizon, it’s easy to feel the end of the world is near . . . . The atmospheric pressure is bombing out. It leaves the kind of cold that could split skin if you go gloveless . . . The air can barely hold onto the earth.” Waking in the hotel room the morning of the funeral, Ant sees, “The sun is on the rise . . . . I watch chimney smoke flutter — ragged little white flags knotted to the pipes and stacks rising into the sky. Gray predawn winds drive a slab of clouds off.” The breadth and depth of the descriptions of muck and freeze are impressive, soothing even, and one feels it would be a pleasure to read a collection of Shah’s traffic and weather reports. Shah’s sentences are formed of knotty, tense music (he writes, after all, about that half-circle of suburban sprawl called Chicagoland, which shaped such fantastically frustrated artists as Rage Against the Machine, Liz Phair, Common, and the Smashing Pumpkins). In one of the book’s blurbs, Shah’s writing is compared to Denis Johnson, which feels right. Whiteout Conditions contains the language of a poet-turned-fiction writer (should be a requirement?), and the beauty of the phrasing is often in pointed contrast to the goofy stupidity of the characters’ actions. A reader might also be reminded of the punky lush Midwestern style of Mairead Case’s See You In the Morning, Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, Hanif Abdurraqib’s Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, or Adam Levin’s The Instructions.
As Ray’s funeral weekend swirls further and further out of control — sailing toward an extraordinary resentment-fueled final few scenes that won’t be ruined in this review — the reader is reminded of how the performance of masculinity can prevent certain personalities from reaching out, from sharing pain, and from healing. Whiteout Conditions is a book concerned with toxic masculinity’s erasure of the self; it’s walls and moats. In the face of death, Ant and Vince concentrate on hurting each other, drinking, taking drugs, pursuing inadvisable revenge plots — anything to plug the hole where their heartache dwells. The piles of accruing despair explain at least one reason why Ant can’t get intimate with Vince; he’s afraid to lose one of the only remaining people who’ve known him since childhood, even if that person is a dick.Perhaps Ant appreciates funerals in part because they’re a way of paying respect to the dead while avoiding having to think about life, about what affection surviving requires. At a funeral he can simply concentrate on the details of what’s directly in front of him: “the hearse, the motorcade following behind it, and the little paper tickets you put in the windshield . . . the bad lemon tea on offer, the stale cookies in their plastic tray . . . that it’s all a terrible party thrown midday, midweek, at a house with never enough parking.” Whiteout Conditions is about a last-ditch weekend, a final haul, a failed escape. Every interaction in this novel is drenched with anguish, the reader enduring the weight of grief alongside Ant, who anyone would want riding shotgun.
Caryl Pagel is the author of two collections of poetry: Twice Told and Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death. Her first collection of essays, Out of Nowhere Into Nothing, will be published by FC2 in fall 2020.