Review: Dig by A.S. King


The Shoveler, the Freak, CanIHelpYou?, Loretta the Flea-Circus Ring Mistress, and First-Class Malcolm. These are the five teenagers lost in the Hemmings family’s maze of tangled secrets. Only a generation removed from being simple Pennsylvania potato farmers, Gottfried and Marla Hemmings managed to trade digging spuds for developing subdivisions and now sit atop a seven-figure bank account, wealth they’ve declined to pass on to their adult children or their teenage grand children.

“Because we want them to thrive,” Marla always says.

What does thriving look like? Like carrying a snow shovel everywhere. Like selling pot at the Arby’s drive-thru window. Like a first class ticket to Jamiaca between cancer treatments. Like a flea-circus in a doublewide. Like the GPS coordinates to a mound of dirt in a New Jersey forest.

As the rot just beneath the surface of the Hemmings precious white suburban respectability begins to spread, the far flung grand children gradually find their ways back to each other, just in time to uncover the terrible cost of maintaining the family name.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

Dig is a razor in print form—with just a faintly sheathed seething undercurrent of anger. Reading this book, a whirl of thoughts and feelings assailed me eightfold and I almost recoiled. Days later, there is a twisting feeling in my chest still, like cloth being wrung dry. This is the kind of novel that drives words out, that doesn’t really fit into easy boxes, that makes those who recommend it falter, before finally saying, “Just trust me.”

Just trust me.

“This book is supposed to be uncomfortable. I’d apologize, but I’m not sorry.”

The Shoveler, the Freak, CanIHelpYou?, Loretta the Flea-Circus Ring Mistress, First-Class Malcolm. For these five teenagers, “family” was a word they said with gritted teeth and spittle flying, all their scorn bound up in it. There’s a thread running through their lives, marrying one to the next. It’s the breakage in the lines of their family’s history; a breakage that begun with Gottfried and Marla Hemmings.

Greed and something else—something worse—wound its creepers about the hearts of Marla and Gottfried and squeezed the warmth from it. Marla, encased in her armor of vaunted virtue, and Gottfried, trained around her cruelty, severed ties with their children, and soon after, their children begun to drift apart, stooped with the burdens of life while their parents reveled in soft living. The old couple, in their scathing indifference, had let themselves go on with this simplicity of conviction: “We want them to thrive.” But the wretched thing—and the thing they never dared talk about—is that whatever darkness prowled inside them moved into their kids, and their kids’ kids, like roots driving deep into soil, clogging and staining them, choking them like rot. But soon, reality wouldn’t let Marla and Gottfried settle on their well-worn excuses, becoming like a stone in their shoes, impossible to ignore.

Here are their grandchildren: The Shoveler meandering through the city with a shovel, drifting more than walking, dulled and faded and fatherless, and still no nearer an answer. The Freak whose world has gone white and everything dropped away, leaving her suspended, screaming, in a terrible void. CanIHelpYou? selling pot at the Arby’s drive-thru window because hate had eroded the parent she once loved, and who can’t figure out when the one person whose presence hung like a lamp in the darkness of her life went “from being [her] best friend to the worst best friend [her] mother could imagine”. First-Class Malcolm who is suffering a cloying, needy loneliness, and whose father’s gaunt face is not letting hope take root. Loretta who is hovering at the edge of madness, her only solace an imagination that fashioned the scraps of her life into a circus, a desperate lunge at the hope of melting the knife reality had buried in her side.

Five teenagers walking through untouched brambles, always digging, searching out every stone and grinding leave in the hope that one of them might yield the answers they’re looking for.

“Thing is,” he says, “we can run around the planet a hundred times and we’re still who we are.”

Dig is a story so strange, so outlandish and so maddening, that it felt like a fever breaking; yet, I drank it all down, with a kind of stunned curiosity, though at first I could hardly understand half of what it meant.

The experience of reading Dig is sometimes necessarily jarring: the story King tells is puzzling, drunken and garbled, out of kilter with what a tale ought to be. The frequent and liquid shifts in point-of-view give the whole a scattered and surreal look, but there’s a chiming clarity to King’s prose that held me like a swift-running current. My anticipation made a low thrum—the feeling like a scream building in my mind, and my amazement soon mingled with dread when the story—which previously felt distant and blurry—came into sharp focus, pouring forth a deluge of answers through a series of fragmented flashbacks about the characters and dumbfounding revelations about their pasts.

There are so many grace notes to appreciate about this novel, but a huge part of what is so wonderful about Dig is the clear and unabashed vituperation with which the author confronts issues like racism, white supremacy, abuse, and family dysfunction, and the piercing boldness with which she also writes of mental health, sex, and sexuality, and the deftness with which she then weaves it all seamlessly into the plot and setting.

Dig plunges its reader into the violence of the world we live in, and I was struck by the bitter, irrevocable reality of it all: a white family owning a souvenir slave bell, a neighbor with “100% White Power” tattooed on his arm (which, King later divulges, is based on a real person), a father abusing his wife, a girl missing, the cruelty of a parent who doesn’t care. This is the kind of YA book I wish I read as a teen: King seems to know exactly what teenagers are capable of and what they’re able to bear, and she doesn’t treat her teen readers as if they exist in some pristine, unspoiled state until they pick up a bold, unvarnished novel that makes them uncomfortable, squirming uneasily in their seats with the awfulness of everything.

I mean, white isn’t just a color. And maybe that’s the problem for them. White is a passport. It’s a ticket. The world is a white amusement park and your white skin buys you into it. A woman in economy argued with me about this once. She said, “I’ve heard this idea and it makes me uncomfortable.” 
“It probably should,” I said.

As mentioned before, the plot is split between five teenagers, and then again among other narrators. The five cousins have their own coming-of-age stories that intertwine eventually. In fact, their stories proceed independently for most of the book before they ever actually meet.

Dig features deeply nuanced and reflective characters. At the core of each of them, something red and primal snarls at the sheer rottenness of the world, wanting it overturned like a bowl of eggs, smashed at their feet. They want nothing but to fly away from the dead-end corridor where their lives had trapped and taunted them. To fly away from the prejudices that led to generations of hate, and from themselves, before they realize that family was only a shape they had been poured into—they did not have to keep it.

This is not to say that Dig is steeped in grimness. It is true that, by the end of the book, I had in no way softened in my attitude toward Marla and Gottfried. Their horrifying excuses only left room in me for utter disdain and hostility. Dig is, nonetheless, shot through with hope and unexpected shafts of livid sunlight. The present collides with the past, as the five teenagers attempt to find harmony between the two—a task that once seemed insurmountable for all of them. And at last, they’ll watch hate—a relic of the past—fed to the flames, so the gnarled, shredded roots of their family can grow again, nourished by love and acceptance.

“The best part of all of you is underground if you keep thinking those people define you. Our grandparents were rotten seed. Kept secrets. Worshipped money. Pitted their kids against one another. But we aren’t them. We can break free.” 

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