Sons of the Rapture is, essentially, about finding place: geographic, historic, genealogic, personal. Set in Chicago, the novel is told over the shoulder and through the bloodline of South Carolinian Billy Jones. It’s a strong novel that’s very sure of itself. It’s also a novel that’s heavily based on rhythm and cadence in the writing. It’s analogous to listening to black metal for the first time, if you usually listen to polka. At first, it can just seem like an almost incoherent blast of words and noises instead of the predictable honk of a tuba backed by keyboard. Sons starts off in its curious, full vernacular and I found myself rereading untraditional phrasing; at first thinking words were missing or sentences were backwards. The beginning was slow going until I found out a secret. If I read parts that were giving me trouble aloud, they made perfect sense. How people talk in everyday life is strange—incomplete, scattered, imperfect—and Dills has the ear for it, while deftly stitching a cohesive narrative to give it sense. Much like Southern heavyweights Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, it sometimes takes a while on the front porch just listening to two people tell involved stories to get the correct ear before understanding the adventure. And like those two aforementioned authors, the time and effort it may take to tune your ear to understand what’s going on is rewarded by the end of the work.
Sons charts Billy’s displacement from the world he grew up in gives him a perspective on things he’d never fully considered: what it means to be Southern. It’s the removal from his incubating environment that gives him this lens. It gets to the core of identity, which every good book should attempt. How do people identify themselves? By where they live? (Yankees and the Civil War or Southerners and The War of Northern Aggression.) What they own? (Considerations of class. Decaying mansions, small apartments.) By their heritage? (The twisted, gnarled, and subterranean nature of family roots.) By what or who they hate? (Like Senators who seem too old to die, but are worth taking a shot at in a GTO during a parade.)
For a reason I’m able to pinpoint, the further Billy gets away from the present tense, the more I found enjoying the narrative, and the more the novel seemed to accelerate. Billy’s current surroundings: artistic, urban Chicago which often watersheds around existential-sounding, cigarette-inhaling sex and Artichoke Heart—a flamboyant, vinyl-clad, tiara-topped musician—I didn’t find as always-moving-forward as the flashbacks to hubris-driven cattle drives into cities or a Civil War doctor who turns into gigantic flying chicken and wipes out almost all of a Confederate regiment (but is able to cure the croup).
Todd Dills is a strong and confident story teller who is able to warp and bend time, while injecting his characters with not only massive amounts of alcohol but of ragged, honest psychology. His characters appear literally dressed in language; sweating the stuff. I’m happy to say that Sons gets good and really fucking weird—which is difficult to keep going without the whole novel from unraveling—while not relying on cheap tricks. It’s definitely not all fancy writing on the skin of an inflated balloon, that when it pops there’s nothing inside. Inside, there’s something as beautiful as it is ugly, like a ripped-out golden tooth.
Ultimately, I got the feeling that Dills is digging, moving a lot of heavy dirt, trying to unearth something not only for Billy, but for himself. Sons of the Rapture is an impressive first novel, one that I highly recommend. –Todd Taylor (Featherproof Books, 2201 W Iowa St #3, Chicago, Il 60622)