(The Roar Beneath by Donald Mangum, Mint Hill Books, Main Street Rag Publishing Company, Charlotte, NC, 132 pgs, 2016)
The risk of reviewing any work of fiction is giving away too much in terms of the book’s plot, theme and characterization. Given that, I shall focus on this novel as a totality: a slim volume of art that, simultaneously, satisfies the reader who simply enjoys a good story while giving those who tend to “read between the lines” (an intention of Mangum’s, I believe) pause to think, ponder…and wonder about motives and outcomes that are left unanswered.
Donald Mangum, a Jackson, MS-native who recently retired as an English and Philosophy teacher on the Mississippi Gulf Coast where he and his wife reside, has written an impressive debut entitled “The Roar Beneath” that can be read in a single sitting, as I did.
It would be a mistake, however, to confuse its brevity with lack of depth in character formation and overall message. There are metaphors and messages galore in this short book and all of them will force the thoughtful reader to confront the times we are living in today.
While the back cover of the first time author’s novel contains blurbs mentioning Mangum’s “gleeful” characters and “hilarious” narrative (which led this reviewer to wonder if those giving such accolades actually READ the novel) I, on the other hand, detected a sense of foreboding sadness throughout “The Roar Beneath.” Foreboding not only because the book’s setting is just prior to the arrival of the unprecedented wrath of Hurricane Katrina but also due to the central character’s own actions and comments.
“The Roar Beneath,” then, to me, is not a “funny” read–it is a book that brings the reader to reflect on the culture and climate of the times the novel is set within. Such reflections are not laughable matters–at least not to this reviewer.
Hank Denman is a teacher at a Mississippi Gulf Coast college. His wife has recently died in a car crash; he has reason to believe his brother and fellow teacher, Harm, has killed himself unbeknownst to others in the community; a mysterious young woman who is also another fellow academic attempts to bring Hank back to some semblance of widowed existence; these characters, and others who appear in the book, at first appear to be literary stereotypes. But Mangum’s skill as a writer turns the table on the reader and, without giving anything away, we learn that the above characters–and others in the novel–are far from what we think upon our initial encounter with them.
Mangum’s prose is very accessible and never indecipherable in the manner of other so-called serious “writers.” Never clunky or weighty under its own message, “The Roar Beneath” contains several gems of cultural and philosophical observations (to be expected from a teacher of the disciplines) that alone are worth the price of the book. To wit:
“(The protagonist’s brother) says that the country is in implosion–that it has reached a collective psychosis–a land of the willfully blind where law trumps civility and the economy sanctions turpitude, that we have acquired a mythos of abstractions, giving lip service to religion when it suits our otherwise empty delusions of righteousness.”
And this, when Hank turns on the Coast’s “Good Morning” television program:
“The news, as always, is biased and upbeat, since local journalism has come to pay deference to the boosterism preferred by the gaming and tourism industry. Rising crime rates, congested traffic and the heat indices go unreported, while local festivals, new restaurants, and self-published authors get coverage ad nauseam. The lead story this morning is about some local school kids ‘doing their part to stamp out breast cancer’ by wearing pink t-shirts and stamping around in circles on the playground.”
Finally, this gem, which I also–like the above–underlined in the novel: the written words of Hank Denman’s brother, Harm, who I assume with some certainty is the author’s brother. As a personal aside and former student, I could hear David Mangum’s incredibly deep voice actually saying these words:
“The convolutions of value in the corporate era are such that with each fold comes a further remove from the concrete and towards utter disembodiment. The loss to those of the higher orders is perhaps greater than to the ‘consumer’ in that the latter still has at least the illusory hope for fulfillment in the acquisition of concrete ‘goods and services.’ The Powers, on the other hand, have so abstracted Value itself by means of capital as a standard that the corporate superstructure has become something akin to the spirituality of Medieval Christianity, otherworldly, ascetic. The investment broker has become the new monk, cloistered before the computer screen, his life one of total self-deprivation in the commitment to numbers.”
The theme of “The Roar Beneath” is the only aspect of the book that disappointed and, possibly due to my own misreading, escaped me. Academic corruption is the apparent catalyst of the novel’s purpose but the explanation and resolution (?) thereof were not apparent in my reading. That is my only criticism of the book. To Mangum’s credit, this criticism did not take away my wanting to soak in every word, all the way to the terribly ironic ending.
Throughout the whole novel, the ghost of Hank’s brother, Harm, haunts the progression of events and actions and motives of the characters. I suppose it is not proper to get personal in a supposedly otherwise objective book review, but knowing that Harm Denman was obviously based on the author’s brother and my dear friend and former teacher/mentor, haunted me while reading this novel. While I could not put “The Roar Beneath” down because of the enticing story and wonderful writing, I also could not put it down because, truly, I felt David Mangum’s presence in his younger brother’s story.
The novel is dedicated simply, “To David.” I knew David well. And I also knew how much he loved, admired and respected his younger brother, Donald. There is no doubt that he would have been proud of this auspicious and though-provoking debut.
As for you other serious readers out there with no personal connections? Buy this book. I will say that it’s one of the best novels I have read by a native Mississippian author. So many locals have taken a turn at fiction–sadly, one of the terrible negatives of self-publishing because they should stick to their day jobs–but Donald Mangum is a gifted and talented writer and his debut novel should be widely read. His is a bright and brilliant new voice in American fiction. And a needed one.
My sincere hope is that more works are to come. Soon.