New Fiction by Regional Authors, December 2001
by Hal Jacobs
for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In Robert Morgan's This Rock (Algonquin, $24.95), two brothers reenact a bloody, ancient struggle in the rugged Appalachian mountains of the 1920s. Muir Powell has always dreamed of building things. Now, as a teenager, he yearns for something more than keeping up his mother's home and fields. He wants to build something as beautiful, to "fling stones against the sky."
Where Muir builds, his brother Moody destroys. Both boys have the same passion, but in Moody (appropriately named) it has turned dark, sour, ugly. Bound together by blood and circumstances, the drama of these brothers - and the mother who understands them - builds relentlessly towards a final act of destruction and redemption.
Morgan, a North Carolina poet and author of the best-selling novel Gap Creek, writes lean, muscular prose. When Muir cuts weeds near the pigpen on the hottest day of July, the ordinary becomes fresh and exhilarating:
In This Rock, Morgan has nailed down the passion and poetry that burns behind his Appalachian characters.
The cul-de-sac world of empty, manicured lawns, bored wives and boring husbands provides dark, funny material for Jeanne Braselton in her debut novel, A False Sense of Well Being (Ballantine, $23.95).
Jessie Maddox should have everything going for her. She's married (11 years) to a bank vice president who is pillar of the community. She lives in a stylish Georgian house in a "thoroughly modern and fitness-friendly subdivision." Her dandelion-free lawn is regularly maintained by The Lawn Doctor. So why is she daydreaming about different ways for her husband to die (furnace explosion, bathtub accident, massive heart attack, etc.)? And why does she become the confidant of a local woman arrested for murdering her abusive husband?
When Jessie decides she needs a time-out from her marriage, she returns home to decompress with her working-class family "in the unchangeable landscape of Randolph Gap, Alabama." Over the course of the weekend, Jessie reflects on the hopeful young woman she was and the emptiness that's fueling her despair. Finally, after a night of heavy drinking with her sister, she makes a desperate stab at starting over by kidnapping a bar's stuffed mascot (it's a long story).
Braselton, a former journalist, lives in Rome, Ga.
Melanie Sumner investigates a different kind of domestic malaise in The School of Beauty and Charm (Algonquin, $23.95). What starts out as a quirky drama about a white, middle-class Southern Baptist family in Counterpoint, Ga., turns dark and edgy after the sudden death of a family member.
For young Louise Peppers, it marks the beginning of going down the wrong path. While her father turns to saving things from the garbage and her mother turns to religious tirades, Louise goes from ineffective therapy to an extensive makeover to a steamy affair with a forklift driver. After leaving home for college, she joins a traveling carnival and finds bliss, for a while, in the arms of the Human Dragon.
Sumner, who grew up in Rome, Georgia, is the author of a previous collection of stories, "Polite Society."
Joe Martin's Fire in the Rock (Novello Festival Press, $21.95) tells the story of a friendship between two young Southerners -- one black, one white - during the height of the Civil Rights era. Bo Fisher, a 16-year-old preacher's kid, gets his first taste of independence in 1956 when he strikes up a friendship with a boy his age, Pollo, from a rural black settlement. At their secret swimming hole, they share stories of Greek mythology and Tarzan adventures. They also share the flirtations of Mae Maude, a white girl who makes no color distinction when it comes to the boys.
After a sudden act of violence rocks their world, the novel picks up 10 years later. Bo is now a history student at Duke University, while Pollo returns to the community as a preacher fighting for justice.
Resisting the easy way out - nostalgic characters, predictable twists and pat sermons - Joe Martin delivers a coming-of-age story with openness, warmth and humor. A former banker and social activist, Martin lives in Charlotte, NC.
An edited version of these reviews appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2001