Bitter Milk

by John McManus

Wow, talk about your dysfunctional families. Loren Garland's takes
the cake. Avery, his Mother --- who desperately wants to be a man
--- tells her nine-year-old son, "Whatever they [other family
members] say to do, do something else completely different, cause
everything they say is useless cause they don't understand you."
Great advice for a grossly overweight, fatherless boy, don't you
think? Well, actually, maybe it is, once you meet Aunt Ruby, Uncle
Cass and Papaw --- Mother's cranky old father. Between the three of
them, they don't have the brains to walk a straight line. And if
you think that doesn't make sense, neither do they. If Papaw isn't
making up illogical, obscene songs, he's spewing illogical,
nonsense lines. Everybody tells him so. He doesn't care. He has
just buried Mamaw and now he is fixing to sell the old homestead to
a developer. He doesn't care about that either.

But the dysfunction doesn't limit itself just to Loren's family.
Oh, no. It extends all the way into his school. Ms. Rathbone, his
teacher, can hardly be called, um, competent. Rather than handle
the classroom's antics, she yields to frequent bouts of yelling and
barely controlled tantrums. And the principal --- well, it is hard
not to wonder about Mr. Ownby. The best one can say is that he
seems to be on Loren's side, which is a rare thing indeed.

Loren worries about everything. Almost anything might cause him to
drown, gag, fall off the earth, or just shrivel up and die. How he
functions at all is truly amazing. It may be that Luther keeps him
going. Luther --- who, incidentally, has no body --- narrates
Loren's story. While Luther is generally pretty accurate, he can be
frank to the point of downright meanness. Apparently, Mother
created Luther the same day she created Loren. But for some reason,
she acts as though she is jealous of her son's imaginary

When Mother unexpectedly disappears one day --- and coincidentally
Luther disappears at the same time --- Loren is left to fend for
himself. First, he tries out a night at Cass's house, but doesn't
like either Cass or his skanky girlfriend. He decides Aunt Ruby
might be better, but that turns out not to be the case either.
Papaw may be his favorite, but he's a loony old goat, not really a
fit guardian for the boy. But then, no one in Loren's family is.
For a few days, Loren bounces from one family member to the next,
learning a great deal about all sorts of stuff in a very short
time. By the end of the book, he just might have learned enough to
get by. But now what if Mother returns?

BITTER MILK is one chapter --- albeit a 195-page-long one --- in
Loren Garland's life, full of quirky characters and interesting
adolescent musings.


Reviewed by Kate Ayers on December 22, 2010

Bitter Milk
by John McManus

  • Publication Date: June 1, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312301936
  • ISBN-13: 9780312301934