Before the words begin, before even the title page, there’s a photograph at the beginning of Brontez Purnell’s new novel “Since I Laid My Burden Down.” It’s a blurry, black-and-white image, the horizon tilted. A little black boy, dressed in white, is being helped into a creek by two men, one on either side, holding both his arms and those of a preacher who stands behind him. The three men have their heads wrapped in white bandannas. The water moves out and away from them in rings.
The boy in the photograph is Purnell. But in the next few pages, Brontez goes on to describe this scene in detail as it happens to a different little boy, one named DeShawn. He writes about the one-legged preacher behind the boy, the uncles beside him. He talks about Sister Pearl’s singing voice (“It wasn’t pretty — it was real”) and about the preacher pushing him under the water. “DeShawn’s little soul popped right back up out of the water, feeling cold and wet and not as new as he thought it would.”
The scene is the first of a series of interwoven flashbacks through which Purnell takes the reader as we follow DeShawn, a queer black punk living in Oakland who returns home to Alabama for his uncle’s funeral. There, DeShawn can’t help but get pulled into the past — “all these goddamn memories” — as he examines a life full of women who often held it down, and men (lovers, “f— buddies,” fathers, uncles) who “were dead and buried, and other men (who) were not, but the memory of them seemed just as buried and far away.”
In the backyard of his Oakland home, Purnell says that DeShawn isn’t him but that their lives do overlap. The book is fiction, but its roots are tangled up in his life and can’t really be separated.
“It’s a squiggly line that zigs and zags all through it,” he says. “It zigs and zags so much that I actually could not give you a percentage. There’s no way to quantify it because it’s really hard, and I…