Petroleum, Montana – a town whose star athlete suffocated in its iconic grain elevator 20 years before – now struggles to keep a facade of occupancy; the tin-foiled windows of the houses, wind-battered and snow-sunken, hide both humans and their ghosts. Mary Crampton, well-acquainted with death as the embalmer for her father’s funeral business, finds that most often she cannot speak to her neighbours until that moment their final stillness shoves its way into her basement. When Robert Golden, the star athlete’s prodigal younger brother, returns to take care of his mother, Doris, those who remained almost immediately channel all their bottled resentment and grief at him. Blamed for the accident, Robert represents the malign outside forces that derive their cruelty not from malice, but instead a sense of abandonment that seeks to dismantle the fabric of a community already almost fatally frayed apart, even if he himself harbours none of those intentions. Mary, who has always felt alienated from others in Petroleum despite her lifelong residence, latches onto all those aspects that make him “other,” like how he describes the smell of salt water. She knows that those closest to you can often wound the most, haunted by her childhood as the motherless little pariah surrounded by the strange trappings of death. Her narrative provides a vivid illustration of the lie that proximity alone creates solidarity; we can see our neighbours’ faces for 30 years, but still not know their names, because the pain and fear of misunderstanding throbs so fiercely we never ask.
The relationships among all the characters in The Flicker of Old Dreams pulse from extremities of empathy all the way to disgust and betrayal, and fractures between them build up over two decades. Mary decides she doesn’t want to be part of the shattering, but what do you do in a place seemingly emptied of hope?