Patrick Nathan’s debut novel paints a painful portrait of adolescence and loss

Michael O'Laughlin

Michael O'Laughlin

Adolescence is tough enough to endure without adding grief, depression, and coming out to the mix, but in Patrick Nathan’s debut novel, Some Hell, teen protagonist Colin gets slammed with suffering.

The novel opens with the death of Colin’s father by gunshot. Though it appears to be a suicide, Colin knows better – because Colin loaded the gun. Mourning overcomes the suburban Minnesotan family in different ways: Colin masturbates compulsively. His sister runs off with a boyfriend and gets pregnant. His autistic brother goes into residential care. His mother, Diane, sleeps on the couch and takes up smoking.

The family stumbles toward recovering from the loss. Diane goes to therapy, though she spends much of her sessions fantasizing about an unethical relationship with her therapist. Colin reacquaints himself with his estranged grandfather, a gay man who provides a safe space for Colin to come out of the closet. Simultaneously, Colin struggles with blurred boundaries with his biology teacher, Victor, who has developed a habit of driving Colin home from school and calling him at odd hours to discuss his dreams.

Some Hell is an uncomfortably honest account of tragedy and transformation, told from the disparate perspectives of Diane and Colin.

“He’s pretty made-up,” Nathan says of his protagonist. “There are a few similarities [between us], but for the most part he’s a lot quieter, a lot smarter, and a lot more respectful than I was. He also has a very different understanding of himself than I did.”

Nathan’s own coming-out story is “not a terribly good one,” he says. Hesitant to drop too many details, all he’ll share is that “it wasn’t storybook material. This isn’t to say, either, that it was a horrible event and my family threw me out or anything like that. My parents have always been supportive. It was just a complicated time. It was astonishing how unconsciously you cling to the expectation that other people imposed upon you and internalized and think that that’s really what kind of life you’re going to live. It’s first really, really terrifying and disorienting once you suddenly let go of it but after a while it becomes more liberating,” he says. 

The grief saturating the novel comes from Nathan’s experience of “letting go of the future version of yourself that you had imagined. That was definitely the biggest dimension of grief in my life. Especially growing up in a fairly heteronormative environment and taking for granted all of the things that were expected of me and my life.” The vision of getting married, buying a house, and having kids all went out the window when he came out. It was “a really hard thing to actually lose once you realize that it’s not going to happen, you’re not going to live a normal life,” he says.

Unlike Colin, who leans on his grandfather for guidance and support, Nathan didn’t have a mentor as an adolescent. He believes adults often brush off adolescents’ concerns and inner conflicts with flip comments like “Growing up is awful" or "It’s get better” when what teens really need from adults is honesty.

“Unfortunately, we live in a country where knowledge is seen as corrosive,” he says.

Nathan, who grew up mostly in the Twin Cities, initially matriculated to the University of Minnesota as an architecture major. “Turns out that’s hard, so I quickly dropped out of my major and drifted for a little bit and found out that my literature courses were the most engaging to me,” he says. Since then, he’s been hellbent on writing, finding his niche in fiction. “The novel is definitely where I feel most at home and where I enjoy working the most,” he says.

Some Hell has already been named a “Most Anticipated” book by Esquire and Bustle. The best compliment Nathan has received about Some Hell so far? “'I can’t stop thinking about it,'" he says. “Really, there’s no better thing for me.” 


Patrick Nathan launches Some Hell
With author Kaethe Schwehn.
Black Dog Café
6-8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27