Fellow Mortals by Dennis Mahoney

fellowmortalsFellow Mortals by Dennis Mahoney (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, published February 5, 2013)

By throwing a match and a cigar into some dry bushes while on his route, mailman Henry Cooper causes a fire that kills a woman, burns down two houses, and damages two more. Henry is desperate to do everything he can to help the people whose lives he affected: Sam, now a widow; the Finn sisters, whose house was destroyed; the Carmichaels, a family of four; and couple Billy and Sherri Kane. Some of them want nothing to do with Henry; others accept his help immediately.

Of all of the people whose lives the fire affected, Sam Bailey is the one Henry must try hardest to reach. Sam’s wife Laura died in the fire, and Sam has retreated into the woods behind their old house, where he builds a cabin and carves trees into sculptures. Henry insists on helping him, and the two develop a relationship that is at first uneasy, but eventually becomes something resembling a friendship. Eventually, Henry draws his wife Ava out to the woods to spend time with Sam as well, though Henry asks Sam not to tell her how much he’s helping build the cabin; due to a heart condition, Henry isn’t supposed to do hard physical labor (yes, that’s foreshadowing).

This is a quiet, observant, transformative novel in which the characters wrestle with innocence and guilt, loss and forgiveness. Henry’s culpability for the fire, his guilt and desire to help both deepen and complicate his relationships with the people on Arcadia Street, and with Ava. In the wake of the tragic fire, some people are cleaved apart, while others cleave together. Henry’s essential goodness and innocence allow him to persevere, if clumsily, in forming bonds between people.

Mahoney’s characters are believable, and the sense of place is keenly developed. Comparisons to Stewart O’Nan (Songs for the Missing, Last Night at the Lobster) and Leah Hager Cohen (The Grief of Others) are apt.

Thanks to Emily Bell at FSG for a pre-publication copy of the book.


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