Fellow Mortals

By Dennis Mahoney

(FSG Originals, $15, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

You, like me, have probably never before heard of Dennis Mahoney, whose debut novel is “Fellow Mortals,” a book has been named by Barnes and Noble as a Discover Great New Writers selection.

He doesn’t have much of an Internet presence, but what is out there tells us he’s a down-to-earth guy with a wise take on life, something that you will also gather from reading his novel. Here are some things he says about himself:

“I live in upstate New York with my wife, son, and dog. I once grew a 314-lb. pumpkin in the yard. …I blog at Giganticide.com and Tweet at @Giganticide. I’m writing a new novel and hope to finish a draft in 2013.”

In an interview with Jaime Boler of Bookmagnet’s Blog, who asked if he had always wanted to be a writer, Mahoney says: “No. I came to it late, at the tail end of high school. I was creative at an early age but it was more in the line of drawing and imaginative play. I zonked out in middle school and just acted like a regular boy, listening to hair metal and playing Commodore 64 videos games. But eventually my insecurities and general unhappiness led me to reading and writing, which boosted my confidence and gave me something to do.”

What is this book about?

Mahoney answers that question succinctly in his Bookmagnet’s Blog interview:

JB: How would you describe “Fellow Mortals” in ten words or less?

 DM: A tragic fire heightens relationships, for better and worse.

 JB: How did you come up with the idea behind “Fellow Mortals”?

 DM: The hero, Henry Cooper, was based on a minor character in a failed novel I’d written. I loved that character and wanted to put such a man—lively, big-hearted, simple—into the spotlight and test him with a horrible crisis, something that would thrust him into close proximity with different kinds of people. He’s someone who gets a strong reaction out of everyone who meets him, of bringing out their truest selves. That seemed like a great seed for a novel.”

The tragic fire in question begins with a careless gesture – Henry, a mailman on a new route, lights a cigar and tosses the match into some bushes, which leads to a fire that destroys houses and kills a young wife. What follows are the repercussions of this unwitting act on Henry, his wife, his neighbors and the town: lives change in unexpected ways. Henry and his wife invite into their home two sisters made homeless by the fire. The dead woman’s husband takes to the woods to carve mysterious sculptures. A neighbor with a violent past grows ever more brutal. Where will the ripples end?

Why you’ll like it:

Reviewers are drawing comparisons to Raymond Carver and Stewart O’Nan, which is high praise indeed. There is a tenderness and thoughtfulness to this book, a sense of how people really are and how they react to unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances. Henry does something awful without meaning to, but he is a good man at heart and his subsequent actions show this. There’s nothing far-fetched or fantastical here, just an absorbing tale that captures readers and lets them empathize with Henry and the rest of the residents on Arcadia Street after their lives are irrevocably changed.

What others are saying:

Barnes & Noble says: “One discarded match; several lives ignited. Henry Cooper’s cigar was the immediate cause, but its damage did not cease when the last fire truck rolled away. Dennis Mahoney’s “Fellow Mortals” renders the changing effects that this calamity has on its diverse, damaged survivors. A well-crafted…first novel.”

In The New York Times Book Review, author Elizabeth Graver says: “While the novel is richly populated, it is Henry who carries the story, even when he’s not around. Kind, self-interested, bumbling and brave, with a paunch and a walrus mustache, Henry seeks forgiveness in ways that are beautifully complex, his fantasies and guilt intersecting with a genuine desire to help the people whose lives his careless gesture has undone…From beginning to end, “Fellow Mortals” asks us to be gentle with ourselves, with each other, with the world…[it] will stay with me for its watchful portrait of people, imperfect in life as in art, trying to find goodness in one another and themselves.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Mahoney’s debut novel explores the aftereffects of a devastating fire on a neighborhood and community. Walking down Arcadia Street on his route, mailman Henry Cooper lights a cigar and tosses away the match, accidentally sparking a conflagration that kills one person, destroys two houses, and melts the siding off two more. Distraught, Henry attempts to make amends with his neighbors—among them, two elderly sisters whose house is destroyed and whom he takes into his own home. With Sam Bailey, whose wife Laura was killed in the fire, Henry has more trouble. Sam initially rebuffs Henry’s attempts, but eventually accepts Henry’s help building a cabin in the woods near the site of his burned-down house. Then there’s Billy Kane, whose wife has tired of his abuse and left him. Bereft, Billy spirals downward, culminating in a frightening Thanksgiving Day attack on Henry’s wife, Ava, at Sam’s cabin. Mahoney weaves together the patterns of a community (“You’re not alone, even when you are”) and depicts the aftermath of a catastrophe with an unwavering eye. A strong debut reminiscent of the novels of Stewart O’Nan.

“A small, tight, deftly rendered tale…. Mahoney has crafted a complete universe populated by people who feel real, living lives that feel real,” -says The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Every character in this tightly knit debut novel has a choice to make in how to handle the aftermath of the tragedy. What each one does affects the rest, bringing home the truth that ‘you’re not alone, even when you are,’” –says The Plain Dealer.

When is it available?

It’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library now.

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