Dysfunction, Redemption and Family in “Olympus, Texas”

The Briscoes, the central family in Stacey Swann’s debut novel Olympus, Texas, appear to have cornered the market on dysfunction. They are a “walking collection of deadly sins.” Lust, greed, wrath, envy, pride — you name it, they got it. In an unusually self-reflective moment, patriarch Peter Briscoe describes his family as “armed with sharp knives [they] can barely control.” It’s fun to watch them nick each other and draw blood.

A coming or going is always a good place to start a story; here, Swann starts with two comings. When the story opens, March Briscoe has just returned to Olympus after an absence of more than two years, necessitated by the fallout from an affair with his brother Hap’s wife Vera. After hearing of March’s return, Hap takes a sledgehammer to his brother’s truck, March and Vera reconnect, and we’re off to the races. Tempers and jealousies flare, physical fights explode, and lies and infidelities unravel already frayed marriage ties.

March’s half-brother, Arlo, also returns home, and his arrival sets in motion a parallel story that leads to a violent and tragic death at the novel’s midpoint.

Olympus, Texas is a modern reimagining of some of the myths about the gods of Mount Olympus, set in a rural Texas town. The patriarch and matriarch of the Briscoe family, Peter and June, are the modern avatars of Zeus and Hera. Their children — Thea, Hap, and March — are Athena, Hephaestus, and Ares, respectively. (March, the Briscoe family version of the God of War, is recast as an Army veteran with intermittent explosive disorder.) Hap’s beautiful wife, Vera, is Aphrodite. And the twins — Arlo, a musician, and Artie, a hunter — are Apollo and Artemis, the result of one of Peter’s many infidelities.

Mythological allusions are plentiful. The town’s only strip club is Terpsichore’s, a local gastropub goes by the name of Nectar + Ambrosia, and Peter’s brother Hayden (Hades) runs the local funeral home. I admire how Swann captured the personalities of the gods: Vera “shifts in and out of moods like they’re scarves” while June’s moods are “typically as intractable as straitjackets.” Such apt depictions of both Aphrodite and Hera.

Although I enjoyed picking out the parallels between classical Greek and Roman mythology and Olympus, Texas, a knowledge of the myths is not a prerequisite to enjoying the novel.

Structurally, Swann’s story spans just six days. It’s interspersed expertly with self-contained origin stories of the psychological wounds of individual characters, easily identified by their headings (“The Origin of March’s Rages,” “The Origin of Vera’s Broken Heart”) and relevant epigraphs from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The only odd chord for me was how Arlo and Artie’s melodrama eventually overshadows March’s redemption story. A large portion of the second half of the book is devoted to a retelling of the myth of Orion, his death as a result of Apollo’s machinations and Artemis’ impulsivity and the traumatic aftermath. Certain plot points in the twins’ tale — Artie’s role in the death itself, her strange demand of Arlo to spend the night with the corpse, the “casting out” of Arlo in the middle of a funeral service — strain belief.

All in all, however, I found the novel to be satisfyingly expansive, not to mention astute in its psychology. Its description of the emotional impact of infidelity on marriages and families is particularly poignant. And family is indeed at the center here. The Briscoes might be god-like, but they are mortal in every respect, weak and flawed and often terrible. Can the Briscoes, “caught in one long skid, spinning out on tires with no traction,” come finally to a stop? Can they be more than their history? Are forgiveness and change possible? Or are they fated to be what they always were? Hayden has a non-answer: “It’s not that simple when it comes to family.”

Olympus, Texas: A Novel
By Stacey Swann
Published May 4, 2021