A Death in the Family -- James Agee's grim tale of loss and redemption -- is an imperfect masterpiece. There are sections of the novel -- especially those focused on the impact of death on children and families -- which are quite moving: Agee is able to generate considerable pathos; his writing is endowed with a clear sense of poignancy and regret.
Equally powerful, I felt, were those sections of the novel focused on causation, on who is responsible for what, and on whether events assume their own -- insurmountable, forward -- momentum. It was for this reason that I thought a lot about Thornton Wilder's Bridge of San Luis Rey. In their fiction, Wilder and Agee take seriously the idea of destiny: of whether a path, once established, can truly be exited.
There were other sections of the novel, though, which I felt were less effective: those focused on the histories of Agee's characters, for instance, read as a Faulkner passage might. Agee constructs these using italics, writing in a more poetic fashion: they tend to be breezy and imprecise. Some, I'll concede, are helpful, but others are far too opaque. All told, I found these histories ambitious, but not altogether effective.
No question, this is a sad, wearying novel: the experience of the children, especially, is wrenching. But as I say, this was a book, for me, less about death than about fate, about whether we chart a course for ourselves, or whether that course is written before we take those first steps toward our eventual demise. Cheering stuff, indeed!