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Drew Stevens
COMMENTARY

The Truth at the Heart of Brontez Purnell’s Since I Laid My Burden Down

In the Bay Area punk rocker’s new novel, a man goes home to Alabama to wrestle with his past

At the heart of Brontez Purnell’s debut novel, Since I Laid My Burden Down, is a homecoming. DeShawn, a gay, middle-aged black man living in San Francisco, has been summoned home to Alabama after the death of his uncle. The story is told in a series of nostalgic callbacks to DeShawn’s past that arrive as he navigates the world around him. While looking for a pen to write with, DeShawn finds a curling iron from the ’40s, which sends him in a memory spiral about his mother, and then his grandmother. The book is thin — it clocks in at just 166 pages — but because of the way its structure relies on fleshing out the past, it feels like several small books fit into one.

The book is not autobiographical, but there are parallels: Purnell, himself, is from Alabama, and is currently based in the Bay Area, where he fronts power punk band The Younger Lovers. How much he drew from his own life for the book isn’t clear, but its relationship to place and history feels drawn from something deeper than simple fiction.

The great conversation about race and punk rock is not always as intersectional as I’d like it to be, and I say this as someone who has, in the past, failed with my own vision of how wide the conversation spans. Purnell’s own lived experience as someone who is deeply immersed in punk, and who is also black, and also queer, isn’t the book's subject. Yet it feels like this lived experience informs the narrative in a way that is refreshing – in how the book reckons with fear, with isolation, with love and distance. There are enough fucked-up circumstances to go around; DeShawn reflects on a past with an abusive stepfather, and a grandmother and mother who couldn't stop feuding. But at the center of the book, as I read it, is a more mundane question of repurposing the self upon returning to a place long left.

So often, blackness and black people in the American South are discussed and written about with a sense of vague and always-hovering danger. This makes sense, of course, given the history the region holds and, in some cases, refuses to let go of. Black writers from elsewhere in the country often write of our kin in some distant Southern landscape, without approaching any language of the landscape itself. To see the South written about by someone who has a history there isn’t automatically rewarding, but it is here. Purnell’s South feels gentle and welcoming, and the people inside it are whole, even if their stay in the book is brief. A character named Edna “greets DeShawn with the love of a second mother” and demands his presence so that she can make him catfish, her house filled with Glade PlugIns and paintings of black Jesus. Edna feels like more than just a faint, Southern caricature of a woman. She is a full-bodied person who, yes, just might happen to remind someone black of someone who once embraced them and cooked them something fried in the name of healing.

Because it deals so heavily in memory, the book drifts from light moments to heavy ones. Memories of first loves and sexual encounters are juxtaposed with memories of abuse, survived and detailed by DeShawn. This doesn’t make the book difficult to read — perhaps just a little more difficult to confront. Mostly, the novel presents a roadmap of DeShawn as he is now by laying out who he was, in all its joy and contrasting misery. A big part of the narrative revolves around DeShawn arriving at his queerness early in life, and having it recognized by his family and community members — something that is both celebratory and treacherous in a community of people willing to take advantage of him at a young age. The conversation, underneath it all, seems to be one about sex as a lens through which to view the evolution of self. Purnell steers through this conversation gently, with more layered insight than the page count should allow.

Because the book is so short and because the story is so wide, there are moments when the pacing gets frantic, and the dialogue becomes hard to track, and the narrative spins a little out of control. This isn’t a reflection on Purnell’s abilities, but more a question of space. The book almost certainly doesn’t need to be longer in order to reach its satisfying end. But with a novel this short, and a character this complex, there are bound to be spaces where DeShawn outkicks the space he’s living in. He is all at once reflective, funny, nuanced, challenging, gentle, and artistic. That’s a lot of work to happen in a single body.

What I love most about this book, and about Purnell’s writing as a whole, is how it approaches the idea of desire. There is nothing taboo enough here to feel shameful, which seems very basic on its face, but ends up feeling empowering and potentially vital. The book is a slow stripping away of and distancing from shame — DeShawn from his own shame, and perhaps a reader coming along with him. The central question at the end of it all may be, in fact, a question about whether love is deserved — and if it is, who deserves it, and for what reason, and to what end. There are no definitive answers here. The book closes without the solving of its grand emotional puzzle. I think it is better this way — to not always see yourself in a character, but to see what that character is reaching for within themselves, and see if there might be something like it inside of you.