REVIEW: Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern (Steliform Press, 2020), 90 pages.
When I came to the last page of this novel, I actually shouted, “No!” (Mind you, I was reading an e-book version, so I didn’t see the end coming.) I was angry at this book for a good ten minutes. I should say it was not because it was a bad book–quite the opposite. I was angry because the book had ended and I hadn’t prepared myself to leave it yet.
Even though the central characters spend nearly the entire novel in danger—Biblical danger, with hurricane and ark-worthy flood, fire, sheltering in awful places, barbarous people all around—I found it oddly comforting and pleasant to immerse myself in it. This was probably due, in part, to a recurring dream from childhood in which I was on the run from… something… and I kept finding trap doors and further-down secret chambers into which I escaped the something coming for me. The point of the dream was not the arriving, it was the journey there, every step toward safety. Freudians, do what you will with that. I’m married to a psychotherapist, so don’t think I haven’t thought about it before.
But it was probably also due to the fact that the central import of this novel is the tightening of a community of outsiders (queers, trans folx, POC), and what it means to belong in a group. Perhaps it’s needless to say, then, that this book hit my sweet spot.
In brief: Noah Mishner is forced to take emergency shelter in the Dallas Mavericks arena after a devastating hurricane wipes out Houston where he and a small band of friends had lived together. In the shelter, danger all around, Noah quickly forms a small enclave in which he and other trans and queer people huddle together, trying to keep each other safe from the dangers of some of the (crazy, gun-carrying) homophobic, transphobic, racist, angry residents.
In the chaos, Noah begins to see visions of his great grandfather, Abe, who fled Nazi persecution during WWII. The scene unpredictably shifts on Noah—walls blossom with Nazi graffiti, the guards appear to sport SS armbands. There’s a clear parallel drawn by Noah’s visions—racist homophobes melt into Nazis and back again—but the parallel is not used as a bludgeon. The metaphor with which the novel works is more subtle than that and allows the reader to make realizations herself. It works more like a very slow flood, getting your shoes damp, making you uncomfortable, seeping in.
In writing this kind of story—huge climate disaster event, death, flight, queers in danger from racist homophobes—one runs the risk of aggrandizement, of a shrieking kind of narration, too strident, too obvious, moralistic, inflated. Depart, Depart!, however, does not ever get close to these troubles. It manages to grow, quite naturally, an understanding of certain problems (namely, climate crisis and how its potential disasters might affect our current way of life, and how the lives of vulnerable populations such as LGBTQ folk, poor folk, POC, etc, might be affected especially deeply by climate change). It manages at the same time a very broad story about a community—a state, a world—and to be about one person’s life.
Here’s a more basic review: Depart, Depart! has clearly-drawn, relatable characters and an urgent situation they must all survive. The writing is clean (neither too much nor too little in the way of anything here), the plot drawn tightly across disaster and danger. It feels urgent but not rushed. I will read this again and again, if only to return to that world and those characters in it. I miss it already.