At Six o’clock on the rain-soaked morning of July 27, 1984, eighteen-year-old Roy Smith Jr. was killed in a fiery car crash while driving to his summer groundskeeping job at a Rochester, New York, country club. Just graduated from high school, he was about to start his freshman year at Purdue that fall.
His family was devastated. Hardest hit, perhaps, was his younger sister, Alison, who was then fifteen. The two were so close that their parents called them “Alroy,” and so it seemed to Alison that she’d lost a part of herself on that terrible summer morning. This is the story at the heart of Name All the Animals, Alison’s account of the difficult years following Roy’s death, a courageously raw memoir of mourning. Smith fixes an unwavering gaze on the phenomenon of loss: how it fractures lives, how it implacably deforms those left behind, and how it can lead, despite a surprising amount of resistance, to healing.
The Smiths are a blue-collar family of strong Catholic faith, and this is a book about emotions that fall outside faith’s safety net. Attending an all-girls Catholic high school, Smith finds that when she loses her brother, she loses Jesus as well. “What had I done, I asked myself, to make God disappear and take Roy with Him?” Smith writes. This double loss takes a strange toll on Alison, who refuses to accept her brother’s death. Every night, she scoops her dinner into a paper bag and leaves it in the backyard fort she and Roy built together. Every morning it is gone, eaten by Shadow, a feral dog she and Roy had befriended. Alison enters a strange, twilit world in which Roy is both dead and not dead. She slowly starves herself in an effort to join her brother.
Her parents, Royden Sr. and Lavon, don’t cope much better. Lavon “plays Kremlin,” entering a rock-solid state of denial. Royden has taken to huddling, wordless, on the living room stairs. On a trip to Cape Cod (planned before Roy’s death and ruthlessly pushed forward by Lavon in a denial-driven frenzy), Royden walks into the ocean with his clothes on, and has to be led out by Alison’s teenage friend. “I think Father half-expected the ocean to be gone, to have ascended from this world to heaven along with his son,” Alison writes. In the months after Roy’s death she describes her family as living together-but-apart in an insomnia-ridden nightmare: “Whole months of our lives were spent in stunned silence. We were stuck so deep inside ourselves we wondered if we existed at all.” The three walk the halls at night, each carefully avoiding the others, no one acknowledging what is happening.
One of the heartbreaks of Name All the Animals is that Lavon and Royden are too distracted to see that their daughter is starving herself. Instead, that discovery is made by Terry, a classmate with whom Alison begins a first, tentative love affair. While Alison describes the affair as an awakening (“for the first time since Roy left I wanted something”), it is eerily all about Roy: part of Terry’s appeal is that she is a “new girl” at school, someone who never knew Roy, who doesn’t know about Alison’s loss. And Terry, like Roy, is a brilliant student of physics. Terry keeps Alison alive, almost literally: every evening she gives Alison a plate of food and makes sure that she eats it. Still, when Alison finally gets her driver’s license, she takes to the road at 6 a.m. on July 27, 1987, dressed in Roy’s clothes, and tries to re-enact the accident that killed him.
Fortunately for her readers, she fails, and finds herself, instead, biting into a fresh-picked Cortland apple at a farm stand erected at the turn in the road where Roy died. The act becomes a sleight-of-hand allusion to the novel’s title, which refers to Adam’s naming the animals in the Garden of Eden. It’s also a promise of life beyond that lost paradise: Smith will outlive her brother, go on to Brown, see her parents into their retirement years, and return one day to visit her childhood home. From the pain of Roy’s death, Smith has crafted a powerful memoir, cleanly written, sometimes melodramatic, but emotionally resonant: an entrancing chronicle of grief, loss, and growing up.
Lori Baker is a freelance writer in Providence.