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SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

A Song of Innocence
by Greg Herriges

Reviewed by Duff Brenna

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.

Kindle edition
(February 2013)

Cover of A Song of Innocence, by Greg Herriges

See also Kobo and Nook

Chapter 4, in this issue...

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 does.”

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 anxious minds.

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)


SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Duff Brenna

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 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.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury