Green Hills Literary Lantern



Dennis Must cover

Review: Dennis Must’s Brother Carnival (Red Hen Press, 2018)

Brother Carnival draws from earlier works by Dennis Must, assembling pieces from these works, but building on them and advancing beyond them.  One of the major themes in this novel, as in other Must works, is the nature of identity.  The plot is driven by the quest for selfhood, for singularity: Who are we?  Which contexts define our being?  In this novel, the quest for identity is psycho-religious. For Must, as for existentialists of various stamps, whether religious or secular, this means subjectivity. Contra Kierkegaard, Must’s protagonist does not make a personal leap of faith.  Instead, he takes a Nietzschean turn, affirming self as the only repository for meaning—for himself, at least.  In theological terms, his quest becomes the dark night of the soul, an archetypal journey that Must handles with force.


When the novel begins, Ethan Mueller has undergone a crisis of faith, no longer capable of believing in certain key foundational Christian concepts, including the Virgin Birth.  As a pastor, he feels fraudulent and unable to continue his ministry.  Ironically, he’s driven to ask of God, whom he no longer believes in, “Who am I, God?” Until now, he’s seen himself as made in the image of God.  Meanwhile, a second plot device is set in motion when Ethan’s father wants him to track down his brother, Westley, whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years.  He leaves Ethan a thick manuscript written under the penname Christopher Daugherty.  Ethan’s disrupted sense of personal identity will soon be bound up in his quest for his brother, also a former pastor—and, as he learns, suicidal.  His search for Westley, Ethan realizes, will be a difficult one, with Westley himself not providing any clues as to his present whereabouts.  If Ethan tracks Westley to his former seminary and attempts to track him to New York, to a rooming house and a bar, he soon decides that he will have to give up his geographical method and, instead, become Westley. With this new plan in mind, he now turns to Westley’s photograph, which he has been able to obtain, and his manuscript, which, he sees, as his “primer.” Epistemologically, Ethan’s knowledge of his brother can only be gained by adopting the persona of Westley—and the various characters that people his manuscript.  Here we see another familiar theme in Must’s work, the nature of art.  In “Going Dark,” originally the title story of Must’s story collection by that name, but also included in this work, an actor, in performing his various dramatic roles, becomes different identities.  Much textual evidence suggests that Ethan might, in fact, be Westley—or at least the line is continually blurred between the two, but the matter remains open to the end.  In one way, the novel is a mystery, but the quest is much more psychological than literal.


The novel’s carnival theme may well disturb some readers, as Ethan-Westley likens the trappings of the Catholic Church to the gaudy showmanship of a carnival.  Westley is fascinated by the forked path that his two uncles took, one becoming a priest, the other a clown.  This lays the groundwork for the novel’s carnival metaphor.  The prose capturing Westley’s preoccupation with these two uncles is superb—note:


The uncles’—Stephen and Felix—repeated appearance confirmed Westley’s preoccupation with those professed opposites. In one story the main character is the barker outside the midway’s Ten-in-One.  And then several narratives later, he reappears in a cowl of undyed wool. 


One carnival association is revealed in a chapter entitled “Human Curiosities,” in which a motley group of characters, including Siamese twins Chang and Eng, a circus woman who is half man and half woman, and an extremely small woman—so small that she’s confined to a baby carriage—become, for Westley, more than “freaks,” as some would have them.  Is it because they are, for him, the biblical “least of these my brethren”?—he doesn’t think such a thought, but clearly he does feel a human bond with them, suggesting, in one sense, the titular “brother carnival.”


He does not feel any such bond with a group of hooded monks, at a seminary he visits, who have been promoted by their abbot to a daily ritual of flagellation. For Westley, when these monks then fix themselves to their “roods,” he cannot help but think:


This is the crucifixion of Christ: in which He dies again and again in the individuals who were made to share the joy and the freedom of His grace, and who deny Him. 


For Westley, in their self-persecution, these monks are continually murdering Christ “within themselves.”  His point seems to be that Christ has already, according to Christology, performed the crucifixion, paying for mortal sins, yet the flagellation and re-enactment of the crucifixion suggest that Christ’s crucifixion was not enough—that they, too, must pay the price.  One cannot help but see that, for Westley,“ this pageantry”—this “spectacle”—seems tantamount to a carnival act.


In contrast to the Spartan existence of these monks, who rise at 3 a.m. and engage in daily self-torture, is the Dionysian dedication to pleasure represented by Whadizit, the leader of the “human curiosities,” who dubs Westley “Schlitz.”  If the flagellation ritual becomes a kind of dance macabre, with strong Medieval undertones, Whadizit’s take on the world seems to smack of Vanity Fair, which Pilgrim in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress must avoid.  And yet for Ethan-Westley, one gathers that such human pleasures represent a life force versus a death force.  Playing a “skit” in his mind, Westley imagines a confessional on the midway called “Holy-Schlitz.”  What do we think of when we think of Schlitz? That famous beer ad: “You only go around once in life.  So grab for all the gusto you can.”Unbridled pleasure—or rather Dionysian passion, let us say? The Dionysian suggestion here links us, in one way, to the Nietzschean.  Yet it is no easy matter to replace God, as Ethan confesses when he says he needs God because otherwise he’s lonely.  Ultimately his quest leads to his being admitted to a sanatorium.  Yet Ethan doesn’t go mad. His stay is a relatively short one.  (In contrast, one might be inclined to see Nietzsche’s fate as madness related to his tortured thoughts, yet the cause, or causes of Nietzsche’s madness, are the subject of controversy.)


Must complicates the identity problem when Ethan discovers in Westley’s work that Westley had a brother, Jeremiah. Or did he?  Is he, Ethan, Jeremiah, or are there possibly three brothers? Continuing the question/confusion of identity, a fellow inhabitant at the sanatorium, Brother Alexander, declares himself Westley.  Ethan recognizes the man’s ability to assume different roles, much in the manner of the actor-protagonist in “Going Dark,” and he can’t help but be put off when this man continues to stick to his story.  But finally, he goes along with him, and the two of them head home to their father, who expresses his gratitude to Ethan for bringing his son home.  The identity of Ethan and Westley—and Jeremiah—remains ambiguous, but this ambiguity serves the ambiguous nature of identity itself. 


The novel leaves us with interesting questions, as good novels always do.  One, how does being made in the image of God relate to the core identity of self? That is, if one holds that one was made in the image of God, is this image part of self—or soul?  Or, as Descartes saw it, is the self, or mind, the same as the soul? What does it mean to come to a sense of identity?  Is one capable of having many identities, or is there a core identity? This novel, and much of Must’s work, leaves us with such questions, ones important to our being in the world.





Jack Smith is the founder of GHLL and was for 25 years its fiction editor. He has published five novels: Run (2020), Miss Manners for War Criminals (2017), Being (2016), Icon (2014), and Hog to Hog, which won the 2007 George Garrett Fiction Prize and was published by Texas Review Press in 2008. His sixth novel, If Winter Comes, is due to be released in the fall by Serving House Books. He has published stories in a number of literary magazines, including Southern Review, North American Review, Texas Review, In Posse Review, Word Riot, and Night Train. His reviews have appeared widely in such publications as Ploughshares, Georgia Review, American Book Review, Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, Pleiades, The Missouri Review, and Environment magazine. He has published numerous articles in Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market and is a regular contributor to The Writer magazine. He has published two books on creative writing: Write and Revise for Publication: A 6-Month Plan for Crafting an Exceptional Novel and Other Works of Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, 2013; Penguin Random House) and Inventing the World: The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Craft and Process (Serving House Books, 2018). He presently teaches for