Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: the year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil.
Sal seems to appear out of nowhere - a bruised and tattered thirteen-year-old boy claiming to be the devil himself answering an invitation. Fielding Bliss, the son of a local prosecutor, brings him home where he's welcomed into the Bliss family, assuming he's a runaway from a nearby farm town.
When word spreads that the devil has come to Breathed, not everyone is happy to welcome this self-proclaimed fallen angel. Murmurs follow him and tensions rise, along with the temperatures as an unbearable heat wave rolls into town right along with him. As strange accidents start to occur, riled by the feverish heat, some in the town start to believe that Sal is exactly who he claims to be. While the Bliss family wrestles with their own personal demons, a fanatic drives the town to the brink of a catastrophe that will change this sleepy Ohio backwater forever.
I really had no idea what I was in for when I accepted the request to read/review from the author. This book... well, this is something completely different from my usual fare.
At the beginning of the summer in 1984, Autopsy Bliss, our protagonist's father, a prosecutor in a small town in Ohio called Breathed (pronounced Breath-ed), invites the devil to visit by posting the below in the town's newspaper:
Dear Mr. Devil, Sir Satan, Lord Lucifer, and all other crosses you bear,
I cordially invited you to Breathed, Ohio. Land of hills and hay bales, of sinners and forgivers.
May you come in peace.
With great faith,
And the devil does come to town, in the body of a 13 year old boy, with dark skin, and dark hair, and green eyes, bruises and torn overalls. He just shows up one day, says his name is Sal, and that's he's the devil Mr. Bliss has written to.
With him comes the heat that seems to melt everything in town.
Fielding Bliss, our protagonist and narrator, is the same age as Sal/The Devil. His older brother, Grand, is the star on the school's baseball team, oddly obsessed with speaking Russian, and his mother hasn't set foot outside of the house in many years, as she's afraid of the rain.
Only there is no rain in sight in Breathed, as the devil's arrival unleashes forces beyond the town's ken, and good people lose their minds as the summer of 1984 melts their brains.
Since there's no one to claim Sal, and not for the Sheriff trying to find his parents, the Bliss family extends by one as they take in the orphan boy, and Fielding and Sal become friends.
Told in flashbacks by a much older Fielding, we see a slow build-up of the people in town turning against the boy who says he's the devil. We also see the much older Fielding struggle with his memories of that fateful summer, and basically having ruined his life. He's uncouth, grumpy, angry, and in much pain.
The author tells a poignant and dark story, and transports the reader back in time to the 80s, with all that decade brought, including HIV/AIDS (the gay disease, as they called it), religious fervor, and lots of homophobia and racism. She tells us of mob mentality, and how seemingly good people can be swayed by those who whisper lies and make false accusations, something that we see played out in 2016 just the same, because humanity hasn't really changed. We have to just look at the daily news to see that what happens in this fictional story is happening all over America right now. It's happening in the UK, it's happening all over the world.
Fear is a powerful motivator, and there are those truly evil people who will use that fear against you and me to obtain their goals, no matter the cost. If the devil came to town, would you recognize him?
While Sal may say he's the devil, he is in truth kinder and more compassionate than the people in this fictional town. He turns preconceived notions on their heads, and brings out the real evil in the town, the evil that festers in men's hearts and shuts off their brains.
And that, I think, is really the point of this story.
I can't say enough good things about the prose. Vivid descriptions made me feel as if I were right there inside the story, feeling the scorching heat, or running breathlessly down the country roads with Fielding and Sal myself. I was right there with them when blood runs like rivers, when pain and loss and heartache become a breaking point.
Sal's tales of what being the devil entails were written with such poignancy - I was in awe for most of it. Tales on how it feels to fall from heaven, on losing one's wings (with the scars as proof), how the color yellow doesn't exist in hell, and how the idea of hell is different for every person.
Fielding's guilt after... well, I'll let you discover that on your own... his guilt has made his own life hell, as we see in how his journey has played out. And I think that may be one of the saddest realizations of this book.
And Sal's longing to belong, to matter, is heartbreaking and haunting in itself.
That's all I ever wanted, Fielding. To matter. That is all I've ever wanted.
There's an analogy inside, I think - the heat of that summer in Breathed is like the fires of hell itself, and that heat that melted everything that summer culminates in a crescendo of hatred and fire and loss and pain.
And nothing, nothing is ever the same.
Profound, moving, and thought-provoking, this is a book like no other. Highly recommended.
** I received a free copy of this book via Netgalley. A positive review was not promised in return. **
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