“The Fireball Brothers”
Author: M. David Hornbuckle
Publisher: The Livingston Press
Price: $16.95 (Paper)
David Hornbuckle’s third novel opens in early June of 1959 on a farm in Pickens County near the Mississippi state line. Two boys are swimming, happily, in a small pond when a fireball—meteorite? space debris? or, perhaps, “the smoldering remains of a failed alien visitor”—splashes down at the other end of the pond, some 50 yards away.
The water immediately gets hot. The boys make for shore. Wally catches up to Robert and, from the back, flings his left arm around Robert. They clumsily exit the pond and it seems they are safe but, where Wally touched Robert, the boys are stuck, glued, together.
Like Siamese twins, their bodies have fused. “A thin, jelly-ish white seam” has formed.
What was the fireball? How could this happen?
Life becomes very awkward.
They learn to walk in a crab-like fashion. Their mother sews some shirts that cover them both, shirts with only three sleeves.
Father constructs a special bed, and they have to negotiate toilet arrangements.
This is funny at first, in an uneasy way. It is incongruous, clumsy, embarrassing.
But as it starts to appear permanent, the situation becomes less humorous.
When Robert tries to cut Wally loose, pain shoots through them both. A “bright silver light” shoots through the cut and the incision instantly heals itself. X-rays reveal a light inside Robert’s chest so intense it prevents a view of his heart.
Has an alien lifeform taken root in the boys?
Army investigators in scary white lab coats, facemasks and goggles, and carrying Geiger counters, are examining the pond. “They took blood samples, skin samples, urine samples.” The boys are interrogated. ”Have you ever heard of Karl Marx? Have you heard of the Rosenbergs?”
It may be them Russians.
The local Dr. Stanhope won’t touch them, so the boys seek medical treatment at UAB, then contact a mysterious Dr. Montalto in New Orleans who is reputed to have CREATED freaks in the past—enhancing deformities for circus performers to make them more spectacular—and he says that for $2,000 he will separate them.
To raise that money, the boys form a kind of two-man band, playing fiddle, kick drum, tambourine and sometimes trumpet, and hit the road, playing on street corners all over the South. There are short descriptions of the towns they visit: Montgomery, for example, “where all was mud and concrete. The state capital was small compared to Birmingham, more like downtown Tuscaloosa, but without the vibrancy or the charm.” Wally is already something of a musician but he can only use one arm. Robert has to learn the fiddle from scratch.
(Since Hornbuckle, of Birmingham, is a professional musician as well as a university teacher, this is done convincingly.)
The novel becomes a sociological road trip, a Deep South, absurdist “Travels with Charlie.” The boys and their father observe life in cities and hamlets, see racism first-hand and, given their freakish condition, understand the feelings of the outsider.
In Birmingham they meet up with Sun Ra, the black jazz musician who claimed to be from Saturn. They connect.
“It’s in you,” says Sun Ra.
The brothers fall in with a hippie chick who finds their predicament cool and irresistible.
In other scenes, they are preyed upon, and they have to resist the blandishments of one Gilmore T. Scott who reminds the reader of “Colonel” Tom Parker and wants to be their manager.
Hornbuckle’s cast of characters, besides the boys, includes Munford Coldwater, a newspaper reporter from the Tupelo paper who follows the boys’ story. Dr. Stanhope has secrets of his own, including a most unusual lover in New Orleans. Their neighbor Eddie tells of having encountered a UFO in Korea, during the war. Their mother, while trying to cope with her boys’ peculiar condition, has to come to terms with her husband’s infidelities of the past. It is a busy novel, part science fiction, part road trip, part social commentary.
Such novels are notoriously difficult to end satisfactorily, but there is energy, invention, observation, humor, and pathos. “The Fireball Brothers” deserves an audience.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.