Greg Herriges is the acclaimed author of such riveting page turners as Someplace
Safe, Secondary Attachments, The Winter Dance Party Murders, Streethearts,
and three other equally masterful books. Herriges is well known for his ability
to couple comedy with the edgy world of inner-city life and especially the ghetto—tough
kids, dangerous women, drugs, the seductive power of rock and roll, perilous romance
and the hazardous lives of young men (scarcely more than boys, really) trying to
make their way in some seriously toxic neighborhoods throughout The Windy City.
In his latest novel, A Song of Innocence, Herriges, a prodigy of comical
wit, explores themes that do not lend themselves very well to his usual drollness
and humor. Song of Innocence is a serious story about a husband and wife
dealing with a nine-year-old daughter, Christy, who has a deadly form of leukemia.
Herriges knows a lot about the subject having witnessed the progress of the disease
and the near death of a nephew who is now considered a “leukemia survivor.”
The story begins with Jesse and Nina Dillon raising their daughter in a rural area
not far from Chicago, where Jesse works as an English professor and Nina as an insurance
broker. Life has ripples, but for the most part the family can be said to be sailing
smoothly. A few problems now and then, that’s all. Everything else is fine.
As preparation for what will soon be a sea change for the Dillons, Herriges writes
a chapter dealing with Jesse teaching a course in classical literature. The main
subject is tragedy. A student interrupts Jesse and asks for the definition
of tragedy. It’s a seemingly innocuous question, but it will return to trouble
Jesse later. “I’ll tell you what tragedy is,” he says. “It’s
damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. There is no way out.” The question
is the result of Jesse trying to explain the layered meanings in Sophocles’ play
Oedipus, especially the death sentence given to a newborn who, it is prophesied,
will murder his father and marry his mother.
One of the students, “an older woman,” has a hyperbolic reaction to the play,
believing the subject matter inappropriate. Infanticide, incest, murder—what was the
professor thinking when he chose such awful material for his impressionable students? Jesse
tries to mollify the woman by telling her that she and all the students in class must look
beyond the father’s act “and try to understand why the character does what he
Try to understand is the principle motif which eventually dominates the greater
part of A Song of Innocence as it reveals itself page by page to our increasingly
Jesse has been labeled an “overprotective father.” It becomes obvious early in
the novel that he adores Christy. There is nothing he wouldn’t do for her, so it
isn’t an exaggeration when we see his protective instincts kick into overdrive as
soon as his daughter is diagnosed with cancer. Jesse thoroughly researches leukemia and
the reader gets to share much of that research. Herriges must have spent countless hours
in the library and online in order to make himself something of an expert on the subject.
In doing so, he created a storyline that is powerfully executed and authentically realized.
He also created a portrait of a man reaching his limits. Jesse pulls out all the stops to
save his daughter, including flying to Washington D.C. to cajole, beg, persuade the
nation’s foremost expert on childhood leukemia not only to read Christy’s
medical file, but also to examine her in Chicago. It may sound farfetched that a doctor
would put himself to so much trouble, but the absorbing discourse Herriges invented
between the two men is so convincing that few readers will question the outcome.
As the plot unfolds and Jesse rushes from one false hope to another, he becomes
more and more admirable, as does his daughter. Both characters have great courage
and dignity and one cannot help but pull for them and write one’s own preferred
outcome into their story. Surely one of the drugs will work. Surely the “expert”
will examine Christy and know just what will save her. Herriges formulates his tale
in such a way that we are always on the edge of resolving Christy’s horrible
disease. And yet, try as he might, each approach Jesse takes dissolves into failure.
Each failure taking its toll on him and Nina, who, in their fear, sorrow and heartache
turn on each other. We watch them crumble; we watch their marriage fall apart. It’s
a common fate that many families faced with a devastating illness fail to step up
and do what they know they should do. Instead, their noble impulses disintegrate
before the overwhelming consequences of the disease. Not that Nina or Jesse abandons
their daughter to her fate. Far from it. Jesse becomes more determined and frantic
as the months pass by. In order to protect her own sanity, however, Nina walls herself
off. She continues to minister to Christy, but it’s as if she, Nina, has found a
switch inside that allows her to become cold not only to her husband, but to the
great wreck she sees rushing towards the family. After weeks and then months of
desperation and whirlwind changes, Jesse’s mind begins fragmenting. Scene
follows scene in which Herriges carefully, subtly prepares the reader for what is,
in retrospect, an inevitable climax.
A dying child is a subject few writers can handle without becoming mawkishly
sentimental. Herriges had a dozen chances to slant his novel in such a way that
would have had his readers continually weeping. With great skill and insight, the
author evokes the shattering emotions demoralizing the family—and doing it
without what could easily have been a boatload of saccharine side-effects. There is
nothing mushy or maudlin in the way the narrative unfolds. Anyone who has had (or has)
cancer, or is dealing with someone who has it now, will most likely appreciate the
courageous, uncompromising, no-nonsense candor of Herriges’ style. He takes one
of humanity’s most distressing topics and handles it with compassionate gravity
and a first-rate grasp of reality and detail—while creating a work that is
remarkably eloquent and, above all, hauntingly unforgettable.
—Previously published in Good Reads
(3 March 2013)
is the author of six novels, and recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel
(The Book of Mamie), a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a
South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year
(The Altar of the Body), a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short
Story of the Year Award, a Pushcart Honorable Mention—and, most recently,
a 2013 Indie Book Award (Minnesota Memoirs was chosen as Winner in the
Short Story category).
Brenna’s latest books include a memoir, Murdering the Mom (Wordcraft
of Oregon, 2012), and a collection of short stories, Minnesota Memoirs
(Serving House Books, 2012).
His novel, The Holy Book of the Beard, which he says is one of his favorites,
was re-released in 2010 (New American Press). A New York Times review of
this book says, “It is loaded with all the ingredients of an underground
classic...it is nearly impossible to put down.”
Brenna’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Cream City
Review, SQ, Agni, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, The Madison Review,
New Letters, and numerous other literary venues. His work has been translated
into six languages.