The Life We Bury
Author: Allen Eskens
*Warning: this review may be a little triggering for people*
The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens is about a college student named Joe who’s just trying to finish an English assignment. To do so, he has to interview someone and get their life story. He goes to a local nursing home, finds an old man named Carl, and starts down the road of mystery and intrigue.
Our introduction to Joe is nothing truly special–he’s a “the world is stacked against me” everyman who we’re supposed to sympathize with due to his hard life. And yes, Joe does not have it easy. His alcoholic mother takes advantage of him, he has to worry about his autistic brother, and he’s trying to make ends meet and go to college. I can sympathize with Joe on many things. It is not easy standing up to a toxic family member, and I understand the struggle of wanting to live your own life and not feel beholden to those you’re related to.
However, I would argue that Joe is, at his core, a terrible person. And many times throughout the book, I wanted to smack him and tell him to grow up.
We learn that his autistic brother is abused and neglected at his mother’s, yet Joe feels comfortable doing the bare minimum to check in with him and monitor the situation. He gets his brother a cell phone for emergencies, and then seemingly doesn’t check in with for weeks. Joe is comfortable putting the burden of reaching out for help on the victim. We know that Jeremy is mentally about seven years old. Joe is putting the burden on a seven year old to reach out to him if he’s in trouble and needs help. So…yeah. I have issues with Joe.
And then there’s Lila. Oh, Lila. Poor, dear Lila, I just want to take you out of this book and tell you to run.
Here’s the thing: Joe’s story is the classic “Nice Guy” narrative. He’s a “Nice Guy” who just wants a nice relationship. He’s not like those other guys who are only in it for sex. No, he’s one of the good ones. Just look at how he deals with his mother and brother and all the horrible things he’s gone through! Yes, Joe is a “Nice Guy,” so surely we should have no qualms about how he pursues his neighbor Lila.
Except for the fact that, from the very beginning, it is clear that Lila wants nothing to do with him. Joe tells us how she gives him the bare minimum of small talk in the hall, never stopping to chat. She avoids eye contact and does everything in her power to send the message that she’s NOT INTERESTED. And what does Joe do? He uses her kindness against her. When she helps Jeremy (who Joe left alone in his strange apartment) Joe brow-beats her into accepting a dinner invitation as thanks. He goes so far as to block her from leaving the apartment until she says yes.
He talks about how her “leave-me-the-fuck-alone attitude…hooked me.” Instead of accepting that his neighbor wants nothing to do with him, Joe continues to pursue her, using Carl’s case as a “my lure, the key to getting Lila into my apartment.” As a woman, it’s hard to read, because all I see are the thousands of stories other women have shared. How men just don’t listen, don’t take no for an answer. And how isn’t that the way so much trouble happens?
Here’s a passage that just highlights his obsessiveness: “I’d been dancing around Lila ever since I first saw her in the hallway, trying to get past the wall she had put up, the wall that kept me at arm’s length, the one she tore down for Jeremy the first day they met. I wanted to see her laugh and have fun with me like she did with Jeremy. But all my subtle complements and attempts at humor fizzled like wet firecrackers. I had been contemplating a more direct approach, one that would ensure a response one way or another; I was going to ask Lila out on a date. As I joked about her being pretty, it dawned on me that now would be as good a time as any. I stood and walked to the kitchen, having no reason to do so other than to execute a cowardly delay tactic.”
Lila tries so hard to let him down easy. He simply doesn’t let up until she comes up with a compromise of a date. And then, of course, things go really badly.
To contrast with Joe’s “Nice Guy” persona, we see the jerks that Lila used to run around with. We find out that she used to have a lot of sex with guys. That she used to get drunk a lot, and party. All behaviors that wouldn’t really be a black mark against a guy, but of course, it makes her a whore. And when she gets drugged and raped, it’s painted as being her fault for being so loose. Joe stands up to the guy who gives Lila a hard time (after she’s run away, so she doesn’t even witness his “heroic” act).
He “headed for the footbridge and Lila’s apartment, where, hopefully, she would be waiting for me.” He expects his reward for being the “Nice Guy”. She owes him now. Let’s face it–our Nice Guy Joe takes advantage of Lila in a vulnerable state. Sure, nothing sexual happens, but there’s plenty here that hurts to read. It’s all about HIS happiness, in the end. “And although my presence in her bed came about because of her pain and sadness, it filled me with an odd sense of happiness, a sense of belonging, a feeling I had never felt before, a feeling so exquisite that it bordered on agony.” WTF is wrong with this guy?
And, like every “Nice Guy” narrative, she repays him for his kindness. She kisses him, whereas the night before she would barely hold his hand. Lila is now grateful for him, and sees him for the wonderful guy that he is. Her walls have been broken down. All for Joe’s happiness.
Believe it or not…this is not the major plot of the novel. No, the major plot has to do with the mystery of Carl, and the girl he was convicted of murdering. As Joe interviews Carl, who has been released from prison due to the whole dying of cancer thing, he begins to investigate the case. Lila’s interest in the case is how he keeps getting access to her. They uncover facts that don’t match, and begin to figure out that maybe Carl really is innocent.
And I have to say…the mystery side of things is handled well. I enjoy the mystery and Carl, and everything about his tragic story. If the subplot with Lila had been cut, I would be able to say that I really enjoyed this book. But I can’t. I hate this protagonist. I hate his stupid, stupid face. I want to shake him and tell him that men like him are what’s wrong with the world. Not just the men who will outright assault a woman. But the ones who wear us down, and refuse to take no for an answer. In many ways, they are more poisonous than the others.
I can’t recommend this book. There are other mysteries that are just as good that don’t have a protagonist who is, again, completely terrible. The ending is also a cliched mess, neatly tying up the loose ends. There are no consequences for Joe’s life choices–he won’t have to sacrifice to do what needs to be done–namely, taking care of his brother. Everything is neat and tidy at the end, good things happening to a “good” guy. The hero gets the girl, gets a reward, and all is right with the world.
Except it isn’t.
These kind of narratives perpetuate terrible ideas in our society. They are why so many guys feel that they are “owed” something by women. How many stories have been in the news, where a man acts out violently, and it comes out that he was “rejected” by a woman? As if that excuses everything. It is the dark side to modern masculinity–that Prince Charming deserves the girl because he’s the good guy, and so what if the girl says no.
I’m sorry if this review was less focused on plot and more soapboxy than others. But this is something that I feel strongly about. And too many reviews ignore this issue altogether to simply praise the parts that are good.
Until next time, folks.