Tariq Shah’s spare debut novel, Whiteout Conditions, finds itself at the intersection of poetry and violence with one man’s quest to suture an obsession with funerals and, perhaps, locate a disaster that will usher in a secretly-hoped-for self-fulfillment.
The plot follows Ant’s journey home to meet an old buddy, Vince, who has agreed to drive him to the funeral of their mutual childhood friend and Vince’s cousin, Ray, who, Ant learns, suffered a most-brutal death. Most of the tension in the novel exists within the toxic relationship between Ant and Vince, which is equal-parts brotherly and hostile. Reunited after too many years, both characters hold their cards close, bonding only over prescription painkillers and shared history. When Ant notices that Vince’s hand is braced and bandaged early on, a shadow of suppressed masculine emotions is cast over the remainder of the novel, highlighting the important theme of toxic savagery bred from a forced denial of pain.
While trying to brace what is left of any friendship between himself and Vince, Ant reflects on his childhood growing up in the working-class suburban Midwest, ripe with unbearably hot summers and accidentally-fired handguns. Through these reflections, the reader gets to know Ray, an innocent who fell victim to the rotted fruits of unchecked perversion and, ultimately, animal abuse. Little does Ant know, Vince is on a feral binger of booze and meds to fuel the vengeance he aims to seek for Ray’s killing. Vince’s thirst for revenge dredges Ant out of his death-made cocoon, which forces Ant to choose between righteousness and betrayal.
The hollowness of Ant’s inner life is examined via memories peppered throughout the narrative. “With the last of my loved ones now long dead, I find funerals kind of fun,” Ant admits in the novel’s opening, shining but the faintest of light on the specifics of the deaths that haunt him. The mystery of Ant’s pain is one of the driving factors of the story, begging the question of Ant’s very reason for being. He is hesitant to reveal his pain, and only does so for the reader, alluding to the holes left behind from the loss of family and of a lover.
Ant’s most pained thoughts bring out the best of Shah’s style—a tincture of Cormac McCarthy’s nuanced brevity and Flannery O’Connor’s neo-Gothic poeticism. Caught up in the dark thought of his dead lover, Ant says, “I like to think about [her] the way I like to pick at scabs, peeling off the dead parts until I draw a bead of blood, a bright scarlet pinhead. I like doing this, at night, in the quiet, picking away the necrotic rind of my heart stinging fresh, and I feel something real again at least.” Shah’s prose shines during such moments of his protagonist’s morbid and secret afflictions, flowing with stark and cinematic lyricism.
In the end, Ant transcends the barbaric nature of his roots in favor of a salvation only procured with tenderness. Forced into an inescapable winter whiteout with a beaten-down, near-rabid dog and Vince, Ant must confront, and resort to, an inherited violence that he is desperate to vanquish. With a resolution that binds the human to the animal, the autonomous to the bestial, Whiteout Conditions renders a synthesis of propitiation and cruelty that is as palpable as it is blinding.
Nathan Elias is the author of the forthcoming short story collection The Reincarnations and novel The Coil, the Quake, and the Rift (Montag Press, 2020). He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and was a finalist of The Saturday Evening Post 2020 Great American Fiction Contest. | www.Nathan-Elias.com