Ant loves funerals. He doesn’t have family left, so when he goes to funerals, he no longer fixates on the deceased. Instead, he’s fascinated by the minute observations of each spectacle: “The whole show–the bouquets and black-out drapes, the living room chapels, the organs droning out dirges to drum machine beats, the discount casket coupons thumbtacked by the phone, padlocked basement door–none of it is morbid, to me, anymore.”
Tariq Shah’s Whiteout Conditions (Two Dollar Radio) is not a quick read. Shah reminds you that even though he’s written a novel, he’s still a poet. Reading it is like floating down a river made of dark molasses, cycling consistently, and yet hampering your movement enough to let you sit in it, to feel cloaked in heaviness. Whiteout Conditions explores how nostalgia and toxic masculinity operate (and fail) as a conduit for grief.
This midwestern noir takes place in the Chicago burbs and Wisconsin, and follows Ant as he joins his friend from home, Vince, on a snowy drive to Wisconsin to mourn the death of Vince’s younger cousin, Ray. When Ant hears of Ray’s death, he sees it on the news; the freak accident was bad enough to make its way to New York, where he now lives. After hearing about it, Ant calls Vince and insists on coming to the funeral. Vince doesn’t seem invested in Ant coming, and it feels like Ant is begging to go because he wants a reason to visit home.
When Vince picks him up at O’Hare, the exchanges between the two are awkward. They lost touch after Ant left, and Ant finds that he really doesn’t know Vince; he only has the version of Vince that crystallized in his recollection. After the funeral, they make a pit stop to visit Ant’s childhood home, which is now a parking lot. Ant is surprised and emotional, and Vince mocks his naivety. “Home is where the heart is, Ant. Nobody tell you?” Through Ant, we find ourselves wiggling in the limitations of nostalgia. It’s impossible to experience home the way that he wants to experience it. He can’t connect with anyone from his past, especially not when they’re in the throes of grief. At the funeral, Ray’s mom, Marcy, has a breakdown. He and Vince arrive at Ray’s parents’ home after the funeral, and Ant struggles through a conversation with Dan, Ray’s dad. He narrates: “I’m not sure what else to do, nor am I sure whether Dan expects a different sort of performance of grief.” He reverts to small talk about the weather and traffic, and doesn’t ask about Marcy. Sure, Ant loves funerals, but only when he can sideline the discomfort. Coming home involves a discomfort that feels like an ambush, and his response is to deflect.
Some old patterns do hold up, but flimsily. Ant and Vince relate most when ribbing each other and engaging in playful physical violence, like they did when they were young. The book’s exploration of toxic masculinity comes through the combination of a conversational tone and carefully constructed description, which are restrained by emotional repression. Complicated emotions are packaged into quick-moving small talk. In their first conversation in person in years, Vince tells Ant, “We think you’re embarrassed by us. We think you’re ashamed.” When Ant asks who “we” means and why he’s bringing it up, he responds, “Just making conversation. We got a ways to go still and I thought–what better time to drill down to the heart of things?”
Ant doesn’t make space for his feelings outwardly without detachment. It isn’t until he and Vince stop at a motel for a night, and go to bed, that Ant ruminates in his grief. He mourns an ex, but only under the anonymity of nighttime. Vince expresses his grief through emotional outbursts, which are often hazy and fueled by painkillers. His attempt to find closure after Ray’s death takes a disturbing turn, and Ant makes a decision that brings his barely-hanging-on friendship with Vince to a boil.
Shah captures Ant’s world of performing masculinity, and points out the way that performance falters when entering a home that no longer belongs to you. Whiteout Conditions tantalizes the reader with the prospect of breaking Ant’s emotional tethers, which peeks through the fault lines of the restrained language. Instead, we leave with the lingering familiarity of Ant’s hometown, which feels both soothing and ominous, frozen in time. Ant’s pining for the past doesn’t work for him. But in a historical moment like this one, where everything is uncertain and terrifying, it’s a relief to dip into the sweet and sad nostalgia of a preserved memory of Chicagoland past. v