Review: The End Is Near, by Harry Ramble

The End Is Near (2010)
By Harry Ramble
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.

The End Is Near is a work of literary fiction focusing on the sad-sack character of Nathan Huffnagle — his tragic past, his weird present, and his mysterious and possibly very short future. The novel opens with Nathan in the hospital. He’s landed there following a botched attempt at suicide by shotgun. Left without the lower part of his face, Nathan has been reduced to writing down everything he wants to say. If this sounds macabre, it is, but that’s not the novel’s only mood. At turns appalling, funny, sad, and uplifting, The End Is Near is far from a one-trick pony.

Ramble’s narrative artfully weaves Nathan’s story out of three strands: his present-day interactions in the hospital with visitors, doctors, nurses, and what Nathan believes to be ghosts and Death itself; the “suicide journal” he kept leading up to his attempt; and a new document he writes at the behest of his ghosts, one in which he tries to uncover a truer account of why his life has turned out so badly. These three sources work wonderfully together: the suicide journal tells the story of Nathan’s wretched childhood — his dysfunctional family and his sadistic torment at the hands of a bully named Randy Trent. The new narrative tells the story of how Nathan took Randy and several others hostage in an auto-parts store and came to the point of suicide. The hospital interactions provide motivation and reveal Nathan’s changing states of mind and self-understanding. Ramble’s ability to bring these different strands — each with its different tone — together so clearly and productively is extremely impressive. This is novel-crafting at its best.

As Nathan’s new narrative takes shape, we get to know both him and Randy Trent much better. As expected, the situation is not as simple as the bully-and-his-victim cliché would suggest. I won’t say more, here, lest I spoil your read, except to admire Ramble’s utter refusal of easy answers and cheap redemption. His characters feel deeply real in their combination of understanding and lack thereof, in their ability and inability to articulate their thoughts and feelings. Even relatively minor figures, such as Nathan’s mother and sister, have a wonderful tangibleness — we don’t get to know them well but are left feeling as though they’re real people we glimpsed in passing. As with Ramble’s ability to construct narrative, his ability to create character it stunning. This is a book that reminds us to look for the admirable in unexpected places: in resiliency; in the halting growth of self-knowledge; in plain-spokenness; and in the ability to draw a moral line somewhere, even if it’s not in the most optimal place.

I also greatly admire Ramble’s work with setting. In writing his suicide journal, Nathan tends to visit the sites of his childhood miseries. Each of these locations is described with subtlety and realism, and they’re all set in the larger environment of a depressed post-industrial town, a hopeful Levittown gone to rot and despair. Ramble doesn’t have to overcook Nathan’s story by spelling out its questioning of the platitudes of family and community; his setting does it for him.

Ramble’s prose is excellent — clear, straightforward, and error-free. Formatting and editing are flawless. I would suggest adjusting the book’s cover for the electronic environment: the small, pale title and author name are probably fine for a paperback, but are illegible on screen.

Harry Ramble’s End Is Near is outstanding. I recommend it in the highest possible terms.

This review will be cross-posted to Amazon.

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