In Our Stars: notes on Marly Youmans' "Maze of Blood"

I realize that Marly Youmans' remarkable new novel Maze of Blood is based loosely on the biographical facts of Robert E. Howard, who shot himself in the head when it became apparent that his consumptive mother had fallen into a terminal coma. Conall Weaver, Youmans' fictional pulp fiction writer, lets "normal" life, "normal" love, and "normal" success pass him by as he remains in the family home, providing his mother the care and attention his mostly-absent physician father won't provide. Conall's friends have gone away, to college or other callings, as he stays behind in his small Texas town where he is an outcast, a freak who writes foolish stories nobody in his home town will read. That Conall makes more money than his neighbors is no mark of success to them. He is not one of them, and never will be. My argument is that, despite Conall Weaver's suicide at the age of 30-something, this is not a tragic story of lost opportunities.

Youmans has, in previous books (Thaliad and Glimmerglass especially), shown that the creation of art is itself an otherness, a thing not of "normal" life. To choose the way of art is turn from the "normal" path, at least in part, because the "normal" world is not generally friendly to a life of making art. Conall Weaver chooses the way of art. More importantly, he also chooses the way of compassion, staying with his mother, nursing her when she is too sick to care for herself, honoring a childhood promise many of us would forget as we grow into adulthood. Conall strains against both the way of art and the way of compassion, and it would be easy to see him as a defeated man, brought under by his obligation to his mother and his entrapment in a small Texas town. I do not think we are meant to see Conall Weaver this way, though. Youmans is a subtle writer, and I've been thinking about how little Maze of Blood feels like a story of defeat and desperation. It wasn't until I was leafing through Butler's Lives of the Saints last weekend that I began to think that Conall Weaver's story is possibly one of grace, like the grace achieved by Flannery O'Connor's characters. Conall Weaver, then, presented as a sort of anchorite, choosing to remain in that small town to look after his mother, because he knew it was wrong to go. (This is all a bit too reductive, I know, but I'm going to follow this angle anyway.)

I don't really know if that's Youmans' argument, that Conall Weaver stayed where he was because he knew it was wrong to go anywhere else. He chose to remain with his mother, possibly making a professional sacrifice but, you know, possibly not. It might simply be that Conall's place was with his mother, and he knew that. He and his mother formed a sort of small private world, and if you don't insist on a Freudian spin, maybe there was nothing wrong with that small private world. Maybe Maze of Blood isn't a story of repression and loss. Maybe it's a story of Conall Weaver making the most of what he was, of what he had. Maybe his mother and his small republic of letters was the biggest world he could have, and when his mother died, he recognized the impossibility of entering a new--another--world. Hence the borrowed pistol. Conall's dedication to his mother was the correct moral choice if you take selfishness off the table. The villain of the piece, if there is one, is Conall's father, a doctor who spends as much time away from home as he possibly can, proud of Conall's success as a writer but taking almost no responsibility for his wife's quality of life.

I don't think that Youmans intends us to look at Conall Weaver's story and think, "Oh, what a pity, what a pity." I don't think that we are to see Conall remaining at home as a great tragedy. I think a lot of reviewers recognize Youmans' high achievement in prose and storytelling, but somehow misunderstand the action of the tale, seeing a thwarted hero's journey. These readers miss the particular truth of Conall Weaver by looking for a happy generality they can apply to themselves, I think. Conall Weaver was victorious on the moral plain, the place where it counts. This is one of the great strengths of Youmans as a novelist: she defies the easy commonplaces of fiction, refusing to align her novels with the cliches of the day. She gives us beautiful and discomfiting works of art, and we should pay better attention.

(I thought I was going to quote from Maze of Blood, but apparently I'm not. Maybe in my next post, when I talk about the book instead of talking about myself.)

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