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'Did You Ever Have a Family' gracefully, movingly, deconstructs a tragedy

A small-town tragedy sends ripples through the lives of many in a debut novel from memoirist Bill Clegg.

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Did You Ever Have a Family
By Bill Clegg
Gallery/Scout Press; 1st edition
304 pp.

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You enter the world of Did You Ever Have a Family, the graceful and engrossing first novel by Bill Clegg, through the bedroom of a teenage stoner. It’s just after 6 a.m. and outside, sirens are blaring. Silas, the room’s occupant, packs his bong and takes a deep hit. Leaning out the window to exhale, he sees a billow of black smoke rise on the horizon.

A short distance away in this rural Connecticut town, the smoke signals a tragedy of unusual scale. On the morning of her daughter’s wedding, an explosion has leveled June Reid’s house, leaving her the sole survivor. Everyone who was still still sleeping inside –  the bride and groom, June’s boyfriend, and her ex-husband – has been killed. As Silas sends his own puff of smoke into the morning air, Clegg lets us know this boy is connected to the calamity.

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The story of what happens next turns out to be the story of what came before, ripples of hindsight and regret, missteps and misunderstandings that come to us in the voices of many narrators. A few – a florist who tucks the unused wedding daisies into a hundred funeral bouquets, the caterer who wonders if he’ll ever be paid – appear just once. The rest of the book is built on recollections and revelations as each person affected by the tragedy speaks his or her piece.

Wrecked and alone, June gets into her car and drives. Not only is her family now gone; she and her boyfriend, Luke, a local man nearly half her age, had fought bitterly the night before. Luke’s mother, Lydia, is the village pariah both for her sensual good looks (“a small-town Elizabeth Taylor,” a character notes) and for the fact that Luke, biracial, is clearly the product of an affair. As June flees, Lydia stays in town, where she endures malicious whispers that her son caused the explosion.

In coastal Oregon, June holes up in a motel. There, as two innkeepers and the motel maid tell their own life stories, they shed light on June’s. The father of the groom is heard from. So are Lydia’s former lover and June’s dead daughter, Lolly, who left several diaries behind.

While peripheral characters, one per chapter, speak to us directly, Clegg writes about June and Lydia and Silas in the third person. It’s a subtle shift and it turns us into outsiders, voyeurs collecting details that gradually deepen the tragedy’s impact.

It’s Lolly, a character as vague and unformed as her name, who, in an unsent letter to June, sums up the effect of this swirl of stories. Lolly’s talking about the wind, always felt and rarely seen, but she’s also describing what Clegg has accomplished with his novel’s elliptical approach.

“It’s funny to think the wind has a shape but it does,” she writes. “It becomes visible every once in a while – in rain being driven to the ground in sheets, or in the snow behind our house. I remember looking out the window of my room in winter, watching the wind blow on the surface of the white fields, lifting and whipping the snow into spirals, and in a flash you could see this force that was always there come to life and reveal itself.”

Clegg, a successful and admired literary agent, is perhaps best known for immolating his career in a spectacular two-month crack binge and then writing about his fall and recovery in a pair of well-received memoirs. In "Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man," Clegg is merciless as he recounts his crash. "Ninety Days" is an account of his rocky quest to string together three months of sobriety, a span of time considered to be a recovery milestone.

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In "Have You Ever Had a Family," written in the same spare style, you feel the depth of Clegg’s compassion, glimpse his profound connection to regret. You also get his sharp take on the culture clash between the residents of a small town and its big-city visitors.

“The weekenders from the city not only take the best houses, views, food, and yes, flowers our little town has to offer, but they take the best of us, too,” the florist says. “They arrive at the end of each week texting and calling from trains and cars with their demands.... We can’t bear them, and yet we are borne by them.”

Have you ever had a family, June asks a friend, exasperated after a spat with Lolly. In this lovely heartache of a book, Clegg’s answer to anyone who has ever felt connected to another person is yes.