Guest Review by Thomas E. Kennedy of Duff Brenna's "Murdering the Mom"

Old friend of The Education of Oronte Churm, Duff Brenna has a new novel out that's worth your attention.

April 25, 2012

Murdering the Mom by Duff Brenna (La Grande: Wordcraft of Oregon, 2012).


Churm’s not around to bring us this update, so I thought I’d throw down. Friend ofThe Education of Oronte Churm Duff Brenna, interviewed previously by Churm here, has a new book out, and I’m sure Churm would want us to know. It’s reviewed below by Thomas E. Kennedy, whom Churm once reviewed here.  –John Warner



Review by Thomas E. Kennedy


Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of this remarkable memoir by award-winning novelist Duff Brenna is its humanity. The characters in this book – hell, it’s nonfiction, they’re not characters, they’re people! – do hateful, hurtful things to one another.  They are lost in their needs, their aberrations, their dreams, their longing – too lost to take stock of the effect of their own behavior upon the people with whom they share their lives and who depend upon them, not least the children who are hostages to a kind of madness.

Worst among them is Nick Pappas – tall, dark and handsome, as the narrator’s mother likes her men, though also the blowhard, bully, boastful, cowardly, drunken, narcissistic, womanizing, wife-beating, child-beating, child-molesting stepfather of the narrator. Yet despite all there is to despise about the man, the reader is acutely aware of him as a human being. Nick Pappas is human, all too human, as is every character peopling these pages. We see their flaws, foibles and failings. We see their humanity in all its fullness—hard working, heartbreaking, sorrowful, tragic, belly-laugh funny at times, pitiful, embarrassing and, yes, occasionally admirable, even loveable, even kind and good-hearted and fun-loving.

This, I think, above all, is Brenna’s grand achievement here. He is not settling old scores – and god knows there were scores he might well have wanted to settle if he’d a mind to. But no, he is exploring – unsparingly, unflinchingly, but above all fairly, with balance and breathtaking honesty – the humanity of a group of people born into and continually creating a kind of hell in which they thrash around without a clue as to how to get out.

But Brenna did get out.  He outlasted what sometimes seems unendurable. His resiliency speaks to that toughness and durability that lives within a human being determined not to let life’s traumas destroy him. He eventually left this abusive home, went out into the world and worked on dairy farms and in construction, before entering the Army, rising to the rank of sergeant during the Vietnam Era and seeing action as a paratrooper in  the Expeditionary Force that invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965 – a horrifying experience he explores elsewhere in his writing. After his discharge, he worked his way through college by running a gantry in a shipyard at night. He graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and earned his master’s with distinction.Ultimately, Brenna became an English Professor at California State University, San Marcos, where he won three Outstanding Faculty Awards for his teaching. All this from a man who didn’t finish high school and had to earn a GED before he could be permitted to enroll in college.

Anyone who has read any of Duff Brenna’s unique and compelling novels – there are six of them, all of them powerful tales of American rural and working-class life that have been lavished with praise by most major American newspapers and translated into several other languages – will glimpse some of the sources in this mesmerizing memoir.  To get a sense of Murdering the Mom, all you need do is read its opening pages. Within a very few pages, I am convinced, you won’t be able to put the book down. By the time you finish it, I believe you’ll agree it is an astonishing story. Pure Brenna and pure America, too – an America you don’t see very often as close up and personal as this.

Our country tears of thee!  Brenna has looked it dead in the face and brought it all back home to show us how a big part of our country lives and what it tries to survive. The uplift comes when you finish the last page and realize how amazing it is that he lived to tell the tale. And what a tale it is! Some don’t survive this kind of life. We can be glad that Brenna not only survived but, in the words of William Faulkner, prevailed!

Murdering the Mom is available for preorder now (with free shipping) direct from Wordcraft of Oregon.


Thomas E. Kennedy is the author of 30 books, including novels, essay and story collections, literary criticism and translation. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Copenhagen in American literature and teaches in the Fairleigh Dickinson University low residency MFA Program.


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