Greek gods are often lusty, belligerent, stubborn and selfish. For her debut novel, “Olympus, Texas” (Doubleday, 336 pp., ★★★ out of four), Stacey Swann reimagines them as residents of the Lone Star State – a fit place for those large, unruly egos.
On a homestead outside of Houston, the Hera-and-Zeus figures, June and Peter Briscoe, are tentatively welcoming back their rageful son March, who’d been banished after sleeping with Vera, the wife of his brother Hap. Also back home is Arlo, a country singer managed by his sister, Artie. Between March’s explosive anger and Arlo’s overprotectiveness of Artie, tensions run high. “The Briscoes brought out the worst in each other,” Swann writes.
Swann, a native Texan, cleverly reimagines the gods as down-home personality types. Mars, god of war, becomes March, an Army vet; Hephaestus, god of metalworking, becomes Hap, who runs a body shop. Arlo is the music god Apollo, while Artie, a skilled hunter, is the archer Artemis. The local gastropub is called Nectar + Ambrosia. The local strip club is Terpsichore’s.
The plot hews to myth too, playing off the story of Artemis being tricked into killing her lover, Orion, by a jealous Apollo. Arlo persuades Artie that her boyfriend, Ryan, is actually a skunk across a river and goads her to fire a fatal shot. Artie is quickly consumed by epic grief, Arlo by epic guilt.
Even if you don’t make every connection, Swann makes it clear that Greek myths offer a unique way to disrupt the conventional family saga. Infidelity and infighting abound in outsize ways – Peter has six children with two women, and Hap smashes March’s truck with a sledgehammer early on. Characters snap at each other about forgiveness but rarely offer or accept it. “People think love is good in and of itself,” Vera says. “Stupid, really. When does it ever work out like that in real life?” When it comes to family-fiction tropes, Swann has found a way to be persistently, often admirably irreverent.
But rebooting myths as realistic novels is tricky, because human nature often gets skewed in the retelling. Successful such novels bridge chaos-sowing gods and resolution-seeking mortals – Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire” and Madeline Miller’s “Circe” are two excellent recent examples. By emphasizing godly fury, “Olympus” at times lapses into melodrama, its characters delivering officious pronouncements (“I am casting you out,” “I am done with the damaged sons of Peter, the lot of you.”) They speak often about what each other deserves, but because it’s hard to root for any one character, it’s easy to conclude they simply deserve each other.
“Olympus” thrives in its more intimate moments than in its sweeping, occasionally incredible plot. Alone with Ryan’s corpse at the undertaker, Arlo is crushed at “seeing Ryan’s body without his permission, without Ryan’s knowledge…an unforgivable invasion of privacy,” and Swann thoughtfully explores Arlo’s motivations to half-persuade his sister to kill. In those passages, the noise of the angry gods subsides for a moment and they cease to be, as Peter says, “armed with sharp knives we can barely control.”