Belgium: Have a Drink on Me

In Dimitri Verhulst’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Misfortunates, Dimmy is a 12-year-old boy who lives with his grandmother, father and three uncles. The four brothers are heavy drinkers and the place they call home is filthy, and not the best place for a young boy. The men live for the drink, and are proud of their drinking habits. Even though life rarely turns out the way they would want it to be there is always a silver lining, and there is nothing that a drink can’t fix. Roy Orbison has a surprisingly big role in the book. The family is crazy about his music, and they do whatever they have to to watch him on TV.

After leading a childhood like this Dimmy ends up being a young father against his will. Although Dimmy didn’t have a conventional upbringing he still had many laughs, and he was part of a family. The encounters with social services and distrainors were few, but enough to have an affect on a young boy.

Dimmy felt hatred towards two women in his life, his mother and the mother of his child. His mother left when he was a child. His grandmother was a substitute for his mother. In the end she fades away in a nursing home. His father and uncles had an endless parade of women in their lives. If you have a background like this, no wonder your expectations are not high. Even though the mother of his child did not turn out to be the woman for Dimmy he still found someone.

The book is built up of chapters remembering events or important memories in Dimmy’s life, mostly poignant stories and good times. The times I’ve encountered families like the Verhulsts they always seem to have a special sense of family humour. They also seem to have a certain kind of luck even though life is not easy, and the only thing you wait for is a drink.

The book is meant to be comical or tragicomical, but there is a certain seriousness to it all. It’s similar to when you hear former drug abusers saying “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Even though you know this is not the way you should lead your life, this is what you know. There are many enjoyable moments, and you have people who care for you in their own chosen ways.

It must be heartbreaking for a mother to watch her four sons screw up their lives, one by one, not to mention them dragging a child down with them. Too much was left out of the story at the end of the book. Maybe the memories were too painful to share, or maybe it was just an artistic choice. It looks like ‘Dimmy’ managed to break free from the Verhulst lifestyle, good for him!

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