If you have a son and are trying to gain a better understanding of what the average young man thinks or worries about, you HAVE to read this book.
If you work with young people, whether as a teacher, a coach, a tutor or simply trying to understand young people, you HAVE to read this book.
If you care about young people with disabilities, whether they are physical, learning, mental or sexual, you HAVE to read this collection of short stories.
If you are a young adult, you shoud read “Down to a Sunless Sea“, if only to see that SOMEONE ELSE out there feels exactly as you feel…even though that person may be a physically handicapped boy or not.
Although the book cover is as depressing as its title, I simply could not put it down after I started reading it. Why? Another author, Rolf Gompertz, sums up the essence of Mr. Freese’s collection of stories:
“Mathias Freese is an inspired, talented writer, a sharp-eyed, honest observer; and a caring, compassionate human being. These qualities inform his dark, offbeat stories about life, making these tales a poignant, precious pleasure to read.”
Firstly, I’m struck by these lines in the Foreword:
“Evil exists in this world because it is allowed. To stand against it often means standing alone.”
How true this is, isn’t it? Yikes, I hope I haven’t made this book sound even more depressing than it appears to be. It really ISN’T a depressing book – it’s a very insightful one into the psyche of “troubled characters” or “the deviant and damaged”.
I’ll Make It I Think – We see life through the eyes of a severely disabled teenaged boy, with a dark sense of humour, especially towards his deformed leg, arm and constant salivating. Reading this story reminds me that even though a disabled person may look different from the average person on the outside, they have the same feelings, needs and wants like any other human being.
In this case, this boy shares with us very, very candidly the sexual desires of any normal, teenage boy. Even though he makes jokes about girls being turned off by his appearance, deep down inside, it hurts a lot. And he drives home the fact that just because one is disabled or deformed, it doesn’t mean that one doesn’t appreciate beauty e.g. a disabled person would think another disabled person is “physically attractive”.
Herbie – This has to be my favourite story in the collection because it shows just how important a father’s opinion is to his son. A father teaches his young son the perfect way to shine shoes and the boy thinks of the perfect way to earn money from this new skill.
Thinking that his father will be so proud of him, he is devastated when his father become incense with rage instead and accuses the young man of embarrassing him. Sadly, the misunderstanding causes the father to strike the son, although I feel that the mother could have stepped in to prevent that disaster.
A mother’s all-important role as mediator for this often rocky relationship is highighted in this story for even though she hardly spoke more than 10 words, both father and son think furtively before the father gives in to his anger:
“Where was his mother? She must have heard…”
“Where is she?” his father moaned, almost absentmindedly as if he were alone for the moment.
“Where was his mother?” he thought; never around.
I have strongly recommended for Hubby to read this story to prepare him for his important role ahead of him.
Little Errands – This story has great form as the narrative is written to emulate the repetitive, staccato-like thoughts of a paranoid, obsessive-compulsive person who agonizes (across 4 tightly-worded pages) over his errand of mailing 2 letters.
His mind turns over the 100 things that could go wrong to deter or prevent the letters from being mailed – we get an inside view of the mind of a highly tensed, racing thoughts of such a person whose paranoid imaginations tail one after another as quickly as the moves of 2 top-ranking players in a speed chess competition.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was a Nazi – This is a truly FUNNY short story as Freese gives his imagination poetic license i.e. he tells the story of how Scwarzenegger might be like before he become the Senator of the state of California. It’s really for anyone to prove – I’m really curious if this could be true…
Echo – Narcissistic self-love prevents this young man from sustaining a meaningful friendship with another young man. He blames it on his mother not keeping her promise to pick him up from somewhere but his friend knows that this single incident is not the reason for this:
“…I feel as if you can’t make a real connection with me – it isn’t a wall you construct as selfishness, although there’s something to your own self-involvement.”
I’ve never thought of this before when I think of certain failed friendships. I can identify with the friends’ frequent attempts to get in touch with the other young man in the effort of keeping the friendship alive – now it gets me thinking (and accepting) that perhaps it isn’t my fault after all!
Young Man – Another interesting story about a young man who always thought “he had to become, and become more than he was, as if over-riding who he was.” In other words, he always felt he could do better in every aspect of his life. Almost there but never there.
Because of this pre-occupation, he lived a short, unevent life and eventually died from cancer.
Nicholas - This fantastically written story is about a young schoolboy who has learning difficulties especially with English spelling and punctuation, which Freese retains ad verbatim throughout the story.
From a blue collar background, he can’t see any practical usefor any of his school lessons and offers surprisingly “so true, it hurts” thoughts which, sadly, are brushed off by the average school teacher. Check out these gems:
“On my honeymoon, I’m not going to ask her what’s the capital of Turkey.”
“Even Jesus couldn’t write and he never much from home, never really anywhere and had no degree either.”
“Let me get some respect even if I’m no good in English.”
“The truth is out there on the streets, in other people and how they on or don’t get on with you.”
“Teachers and schools say one thing but the real world says another.”
‘Nicholas’ reminds me about my own struggle with English assessment scales when I was teaching at a private college. In truth, English examinations out there still emphasizes a high score on accuracy (grammar, spelling, punctuation) although the battle is still on for a more balanced scoring that takes into account originality of content and creativity.
What this means for English as a second language learners is that their essays will NEVER be as good as native speakers unless they demonstrate an excellent grasp of the English grammar and style.
However, their unique perspective of the world through their first language often produces excellent, highly interesting and engaging pieces of written work, which sadly, never make the grade. Also, this story shows how most teachers tend to brush off or even put down students with poor language skills even though these students are very, very intelligent.
Great minds like Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Mark Twin are real life examples of being overlooked and abandoned by the school system.
Anyway…I’m truly awed by the compassion Mathias B. Freese has shown society’s members of the lowest caste, if I may borrow a concept from traditional Indian society.
I’d imagined that someone who has spent 25 years as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist would paint a hardened picture of these social outcasts – instead, Freese has done just the right opposite. He has revealed these unique individuals as the regular, human beings (just like you and me) as they are.
Down to a Sunless Sea by Mathias B. Freese
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