"Wildly entertaining." --Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls
The Briscoe family is once again the talk of their small town when March returns to East Texas two years after he was caught having an affair with his brother's wife. His mother, June, hardly welcomes him back with open arms. Her husband's own past affairs have made her tired of being the long-suffering spouse. Is it, perhaps, time for a change? Within days of March's arrival, someone is dead, marriages are upended, and even the strongest of alliances are shattered. In the end, the ties that hold them together might be exactly what drag them all down.
An expansive tour de force, Olympus, Texas cleverly weaves elements of classical mythology into a thoroughly modern family saga, rich in drama and psychological complexity. After all, at some point, don't we all wonder: What good is this destructive force we call love?
Release date: May 4, 2021
Print pages: 308
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Olympus, Texas: A Novel
Drive down in the dark, in the fog--thick white against the headlights and the windshield. The world without form and without shape. Follow the sound of gravel grinding under tires as it slips and shifts. Smooth and quiet means you’re headed into the ditch. Cross over metal pipes, the thump-thump-thump of the cattle guard. Downhill, into the bottomland, the gritty crunch now covered by the bawling of frogs and cicadas. Stop the car. Wait. The sun will rise and burn the land into relief.
When morning comes, the view is a tangle of trees and underbrush--bur oak and cedar elm, pecan and supplejack, poison oak and mustang grape vines. Not a hiking forest but scratchy impenetrability, like a ten-acre fence gapped only by this dirt road. Cow pastures lie somewhere near, in this border between oak savannahs and Gulf prairies, but here is just a small clearing with a large white house guarded by a sextet of cottonwoods. Wind lifts the cotton from the trees, and it snows down on the house: two stories with four large columns careening up the front, broken in the middle by a spindle railing and balcony. Windows peep from the gabled roof. Bermuda grass covers the lawn, interrupted by square flowerbeds lined out with railroad ties--the smell of roses and creosote.
The house is bounded by the woods on one side and the Brazos River, slow moving and brown, on the other. The fluff from a cottonwood lands, rides a mud-saturated current, and then gets sucked under. The rise and fall of the water level has left the clay banks patched with only fast-growing weeds. The river--not Mississippi-wide, but too wide to throw a stone across--generates a steady white noise.
And inside the house? Peter and June in their bed, old and brass, columned like their home. The brass rises like prison bars from the head and the foot of the frame. The bed sat forgotten in his parents’ barn for decades until Peter found it. He was eleven months into dating June, and he jokingly said to her the bed, with its feeling of enclosure, spoke to him of marriage. He dragged it to his own place, polished and polished until he had a heap of rags stained with the green that had eaten the brass. Knowing he’d never want to undertake that task again, he shellacked the whole damn thing to keep it from tarnishing. It worked for a long time, past the births of all three of their children. But as the years passed, the tarnish crept back, and now it is the tarnish being protected by the coating. June still likes it. Or she likes Peter’s frustration whenever he stares at it too long.
June and Peter in a bed too small for him. Stretched out, he must either cram an inch of his head between the bars of the headboard, point his toes through the bars at the foot of the bed, or bend his knees. Peter’s a big man, nearly six and a half feet. Wide, too. June has never seen a man so wide and yet not fat. When they were newly married, she straddled him and lay her palm at the edge of one nipple, then her other palm, crossing over and over again. Five hands between, an expanse of a man. Even now that his belly grows soft and extends farther out and down--another two pounds every year--nothing can dwarf that chest.
Or perhaps this should be a study in contrasts, the before and after. Flat stomach to non-flat. His hair, always curly, turned from fat rings of black to ones of gray. The beard fading to white, only black above the lip. Green eyes, sharp and hard as always. Really, he has not changed so much. A partial softening, a partial lightening. June also hasn’t changed much, at least if viewed while sleeping. Her blond hair still the same shade at fifty-five as it was at twenty. And when relaxed in sleep, the lines are less visible, no skin sags. Upright and awake, things tighten and crinkle, others droop--thanks to the three children she carried, the years of being outside with toddlers, with cattle, with her own dissatisfaction. But asleep, she is young.
There in bed: a sixty-year-old man and his wife. She’s ten inches shorter than him; the bed fits her fine. Her foot rests lightly against his calf. His hand lies close to her hip, sharing heat. Then something in him shifts, the brass feels like a constraint, so he turns over to curl up. This wakes June, and before he can swing his heavy arm over her chest, her hair under the weight of his head, she slips from the bed. Time for coffee.
Downstairs now, the percolator wheezes. She drinks a glass of water, makes toast with butter and dewberry jam. The kitchen, like the rest of their home, is farmhouse meets minimalism with a healthy sprinkle of antiques from both sides of the family. June pours the coffee, walks softly back upstairs, passing Peter, still asleep, and what were once their children’s rooms (now a guest bedroom, rarely used, and an office). At the end of the hallway, she opens French doors to the balcony, a big rectangle of white-painted wood enclosed by a low railing of more white-painted wood, shaded by the eave and its extra attic space above.
By the time she’s finished her toast, started on the coffee, the front door opens below her. She has more time alone in the winter, but Peter gets up early in the summer, gets up with the sun. He wants his cup of coffee, his large slatted wooden chair, while the air has any chance of being cool. The front porch is identical in size to the balcony above, but it doesn’t catch as much of a breeze. He pulls the chair close to the house, far enough that the creeping, slanting light cannot reach him. As he settles in, June waits for his good morning. Instead, Peter’s cell phone rings, rattling the glass-topped table it sits upon.
“Hayden. Everything okay?”
Peter’s brother. As the crow flies, their neighbor, but because the Brazos lies between them, they may as well be miles away. This suits June fine. She’s not uneasy with the cemetery and funeral home that make up Hayden’s livelihood. She’s just not a fan of the man. In his defense, though, he’s not the type to typically call this early.
“He’s with you?” Peter says.
June is skilled in making out the missing half of her husband’s phone calls, yet she’s not sure what to make of this--who the he is, why Peter sounds near joyful about it. Or maybe she does suspect but chooses to ignore that whiff of doom now in the air.
“Noon would be great. Can you put him on?”
Shit, June thinks.
“Okay, then. And thanks, Hayden.”
She hears Peter set the phone back down on the table, waits for him to speak. His long silence confirms it’s news she doesn’t want to hear. She holds out her half-full cup, a foot away from her wicker chair and her bare feet, and tips it, watches the coffee spill out and down, slipping straight through a gap in the boards of the balcony’s flooring. Though she can’t see her husband, she knows his exact location, something confirmed by his swearing as the hot liquid finds its target. Her small acts of violence, a near-weekly occurrence, aren’t premeditated. They surprise her even more than they do him.
“I want to point out, before we even begin, that none of this is my fault. I woke up all innocence this morning,” Peter says. Their first words are often spoken this way--through her wooden floor, his wooden ceiling.
June snorts, not because she really blames him for the news he’s about to share but because she can’t ever see him as innocent. Peter is a man who loves with deliberation, but his lust is not so orderly. Their three children make up only half his offspring, and all were born after he married her. Though he has managed to leave those indiscretions behind, they still worm into June’s thoughts. Thus the acts of violence.
“March is back?” she says. Their youngest, exiled and silent these past two and a half years.
“He wants to come to lunch today.”
“No,” she says.
“I already said yes.”
“The vet’s coming out for the calves. We might not be done by noon, much less leave time to cook.”
“I’ll pick up barbecue. And it’s fine if you’re late.” He pauses. “If you don’t feel like you can reschedule to see your own son.”
She wants to tip more coffee, but then she’ll have none left to drink. “I haven’t forgiven him yet, and I doubt I can pull that off before lunch. And what about Hap?” March’s older brother, the one with the most to forgive. Peter, she knows, is well past any hard feelings, if he ever had them. The man had soaked up too much of other people’s forgiveness to begrudge it to anyone else. If forgiveness were something to garner and hold on to, Peter sat atop a stockpile.
June has chosen to believe that distance can create safety. March, away from Olympus, was a safe March--safe for Hap, safe for her, safe for March himself. She doesn’t like the fact that her carefully built sense of security can evaporate between one sip of coffee and the next.
“You can have lunch without forgiving him. We can’t refuse to see him altogether,” says Peter.
She sorts through her feelings to find a bit of happiness: a sign she is looking forward to seeing her son. She goes to the balcony railing and scans Hayden’s property across the river, wondering if binoculars would let her see March and trigger a more maternal feeling. She’s distracted by a peacock--the second-most prevalent animal on their land, after the cattle--stalking across the yard. It comes up close to the porch, its fan folded behind it. She hears her husband suck up a mouthful of coffee, and, mustering experience from years chewing tobacco, he shoots it in a hard stream, hitting the bird in the neck. It doesn’t flinch, keeps still, then turns its ass toward her husband and slowly struts farther onto the lawn, spreading out its fan. The sun, not far from the horizon, hits the feathers from behind, muting the colors into a dark lattice of lines and circles, light coming through the cracks to spread another lattice on the lawn. It’s too lovely to let her deny her son’s request. Still, she lets her silence act as her consent. Silence and a sigh
Knowing his uncle would take offense at the dogs marking cemetery headstones as their territory, March takes his mastiffs to the field across the street. The dogs wander into the Johnson grass, which, at four feet, just covers their heads and reduces them to moving spots of shaking stems. March watches Hayden pace from the edge of his house’s front lawn, across the empty parking lot, to the edge of the funeral home. Halfway back through the unpaved lot, he stops, sliding his cell phone back into his shirt pocket. Beyond his uncle, across the river, March can see the small white shape of the house he grew up in.
The dogs return, already panting and staring at March with what, to him, feels like blame. If they could speak, they’d ask to go back to the mountains. Like most non-native Texans, the dogs likely see the heat as a personal affront rather than simply the weather. His uncle appears at his side.
“You’re invited to lunch, twelve o’clock.” The dogs sniff Hayden’s hands, hopeful for another round of petting. Upon being ignored, they drop heavily to the ground, using March’s shadow as shade.
“That easy?” March says.
“It was. But I don’t think Peter checked with June.”
“So you might get a call to uninvite me?”
March is close enough to his uncle to come asking favors, unannounced and early in the morning, but not so close that his prior disappearance affronted the man or requires an apology. Though March hasn’t exactly articulated that to himself, it is indeed why he stopped here first rather than at his parents’. Hayden has always preferred March to his older brother, and March isn’t too proud to rely on that. The favoritism comes from how much March looks like their father, a slightly reduced copy: an inch or two shorter, features a little sharper, and the same green eyes and dark curly hair. Hap takes after their mother, blond and not as tall, though without her beauty.
“She wouldn’t turn you away. If not to see you, then at least to browbeat you.” Hayden smiles but March doesn’t. “You haven’t talked to any of us this whole time?”
March shakes his head. When his affair with his brother’s wife came out, he expected Hap’s wrath, but he was surprised his entire family seemed to will him away. He, in his typical fashion, hadn’t thought that far ahead. In defense, he put a state line between them, so their absence in his life would feel chosen instead of forced. He bought this idea of it having been his choice so fully, he thought he could also choose to come home. It wasn’t until he exited I-10 for Olympus this morning, after driving through the night, that he realized he might have made a mistake. He viewed his exile as a prison term served, but he had no proof his family would see it the same way
“I need another favor. Have anywhere I can store my stuff for now?” March tips his head toward his truck bed, half-full of boxes.
“Plenty of space in the storeroom down the hall from my office. I’ve got to shower, though. Meeting a family to talk through arrangements at eight. When you’re done unloading, come over to the house for breakfast. Grab a nap before lunch if you need it. Stephanie and the kids are spending the summer in Iowa with her mom, per usual, so you’ll have plenty of quiet.”
Stephanie’s absence increases the appeal of Hayden’s offer. She considers March a bad influence on his cousins, two boys not yet in junior high, and he can’t say she doesn’t have good reason. March’s affair with his sister-in-law, Vera, was the most recent in a long series of mistakes. Starting a riot on the high school football field that lost the state championship; the Titans had been on the five-yard line, first down, a minute and a half on the clock. The fistfight that led to a fire, destroying the town’s one-hundred-year-old domino parlor. His dishonorable discharge from the Army. March doesn’t flinch from thinking about his bad behavior because it’s like thinking of a separate person. When he becomes truly angry, his body keeps moving while his brain fritzes out, like he’s blackout drunk. After a few minutes, he’ll be conscious of himself again, now less angry but with no memory of what he’s just done. It’s hard to own what he can’t re-create in his mind. He can’t even own his diagnosis: intermittent explosive disorder. Though he believes the people that insist it’s true--his entire family--in his heart it all feels like a misunderstanding.
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