In the 15th Century morality play Everyman, the common conceit is that mankind will come upon a day of reckoning whereupon each man’s life will be scored by each of his good deeds. Everyman, reminded of death at all turns, seeks assurance from his fellows that he has done good. Ultimately he loses all his friends and dies with only those good deeds he manages to cling to.
The Late Matthew Brown is a first novel by Paul Ketzle that stirs a mysterious potage into this Everyman conceit. With a first person point of view, the everyman, Matthew Brown, weaves the reader into his mundane life that on the face of it seems to hold nothing more exhilarating than a middling political power. He is the Associate Director of the Department of Corrections in an unnamed state of the modern south having risen from the lesser position of Director of the Bureau of Environmental Study, which made him “a friend of the earth and all its small and defenseless creatures.”
Brown is a political appointee who is lineage-endorsed but a rather incompetent figurehead who takes credit for others’ work, others’ sweat. He acknowledges this fact: “Learning to stay out of the way was perhaps my greatest contribution…” Indeed he suspects that he is positioned precisely for his ignorance in some larger scheme that he does not have the energy to question.
Into this base of character, Ketzle adds many ingredients of mystery. Foremost is the appearance of a daughter he did not know he had. Her name is Hero, and she comes to stay with him for a month, ostensibly so that the two can get to know one another. He vaguely remembers Hero’s mother: “…Val, though she was only an obscure, possibly invented, memory to me, an impression of a gloriously drunken evening of debauchery thirteen years before.” DNA testing has proven his paternity and he is horribly underprepared for fatherhood.
The subtle events of life, those small, unnoticed moments that at the time seem so remote, come back to you in the most unexpected and frightening ways. Past overtakes present. It returns in the form of twelve-year-old girls who look upon you with pursed lips and oh-so-skeptical frowns; who avoid your eyes when you walk into a room; who stand noticeably apart from you reading grocery store tabloid banners, laughing quietly to themselves without sharing the joke, while you hunt frozen dinners and avoid the prying disapproval of other shopping parents.
Then there is the matter of his own death. After an accident that leaves Hero scarred and Matthew with minor injuries, his life insurance company sends a beneficiary check to Hero. “She handed over a formal-looking letter. ‘Apparently you’re dead.’” This is a snafu that is never explained, but could be his everyman way of accounting, a second chance in life (death) to create some good deeds. Credit cards are canceled, his payroll check stops coming, it puts considerable strain on Matthew’s ability to function as a living being. “And now I was dead. Things decidedly did not appear to be looking up.”
Then Hero’s mother goes missing. Sinkholes dot the countryside. Shadowy investigators start snooping around in Matthew’s past dealings at the Bureau of Environmental Study. A former colleague that makes a terrible pot of coffee puts him on a chase for clues in a dingy, mildewed warehouse searching for a project Matthew vaguely remembers called Rain King. He signed off on a potentially deadly pesticide project. But he can’t recall any of it because of his abject lack of caring: “My passivity had been more successful than even I could have dreamed.” He begins to see that he is the patsy, his rise in the state government more than just dumb luck. He has been set up to take the fall.
“Get out of politics, Matty, before it kills you[,]” his journalist friend, Janice, tells him. And indeed she is looking out for his own good, though only so much as his own good does not get in the way of a good scoop, a scandalous story.
On top of all these muddled distractions Matthew Brown has been assigned to orchestrate the first capital punishment execution the state has seen in over a decade. With the legacy of botched executions and recent death-row media attention, the Director naturally gives Matthew the job. “We don’t want any accidents, like what happened last time. This is going to be a three-ring circus, and you’re the perfect public face for this.” In all of this his daughter, Hero, tries to be his good conscience, his guide to lift him, however precociously and caustic while explaining his job to Hero’s other father, Geoffrey:
“What is it you do, Matthew?” Geoffrey asked, turning to me. “You’re in government, I think I heard.”
Hero sneered. “He’s a cold-blooded killer.”
“I work for the Department of Corrections.”
“Don’t leave out the killing part.”
I glared at Hero. “The state is in the process of executing a murderer, and they’ve left the details up to me, yes.”
“Nice dodge,” Hero laughed.
“No one asks for this,” I said, inexplicably trying to justify myself. “It’s the job.”
He reluctantly wades in to make arrangements, the hiring of an anonymous executioner, a doctor to confirm death, a resourceful chef to hire for the condemned man’s last meal:
He wanted a steak, medium rare, lobster (or shrimp, if that wasn’t available), BBQ chicken, dark meat, fruit salad–no bananas–grape juice (wine and other alcoholic beverages were not allowed), pecan pie, a single glazed doughnut.
Ketzle has written here a novel that reflects back on the reader like a skim of oil in our cup of broth. We are all Matthew Brown. I personally know three Matthew Browns, all of whom, at the moment, are still alive. But we all will face death and our own accounting.
A recent graduate of the University of Utah’s Creative Writing Program, Ketzle’s writing is straightforward, at times illuminating, at times brilliant with surprising structural nimbleness that impresses a second read for the simple pleasure of witnessing careful prose. Ketzle has skillfully blended a tale of mystery, political satire, race, and child parent relations into a pot boiler of intrigue set on the flames of Old and New South to roil in conflict. The Every Man, Matthew Brown-–like all of us–drinks from the bittersweet elixir, lets it cool on his tongue, and swallows.
“You still live under the illusion that there is all good and all bad. We live with both, the good and bad, the old and the new. It’s a push-pull, and mostly they even each other out, find a state of balance.”
Paul Ketzle received his doctorate in literature and creative writing from the University of Utah and a master’s in creative writing from Florida State University. Formerly an editor of Quarterly West and at Western Humanities Review, he currently teaches and resides in Salt Lake City with his wife, Marcia, and two incredible (and wonderfully challenging) daughters.
Larry Menlove is a graduate of the University of Utah. His fiction has appeared in many venues including Weber Studies, Dialogue, Irreantum and Sunstone. He lives with his wife, children and an old cat in Spring Lake.