New Fiction by Regional Authors, February 2002
by Hal Jacobs
for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Mary Robison's Why Did I Ever (Counterpoint, $23) resembles both a collection of diary entries and a smashed mirror. Taken together, the 536 entries create a vivid portrait of Money Breton, an intense woman who is veering away from the Big Crack Up by the sheer force of her intelligence, heart and wit. Taken individually, each little glass sliver of an entry draws blood.
Here is journal entry No. 199: "I wander down to the cafeteria, get a scary orange-iced bun that's not worth unwrapping, get coffee, droop over it, think about the mistakes I've made."
Entry No. 16: "Something else that makes me angry is that I got too old to prostitute myself. I wasn't going to anyway but it was there, it was my Z plan."
Entry No. 208: "Each and every tire squeal reminds me I lost my cat."
Entry No. 272: "I would like to ask all the husbands, just in case I ever have to fill out a form, 'You did what kind of work?'"
Only gradually do the facts of her life emerge. Her first name is Money ("The name I use is an annoying problem. Everyone wonders about it. No one doesn't ask."). She lives in a small southern town, drives aimlessly all over the South and is regularly humiliated in Hollywood as a script doctor. Her three exhusbands are "pigboys." Her boyfriend is a rich moron who lives in New Orleans. Her grown daughter is a recovering addict, and her grown son lives in New York in police custody after being savagely assaulted by a sex criminal.
If anybody deserves to lie down on the couch and not get up, it's Money Breton. But, in the end, what rescues her is this clear-eyed chronicle of comings and goings, conversations with herself, and goulash of disturbing little scenes that make up her brilliantly fragmented life.
Robison, the author of two previous novels and three story collections, teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi.
T.R. Pearson mines the mouthy, redneck Southern narrator for all it's worth in Polar (Viking, $24.95). Consider his description of Clayton, who undergoes a bizarre transformation from devoted purveyor of cable smut to small-town mystic:
"By all accounts, Clayton had seemed his normal self in the checkout line - phlegmy, unshaven and fragrant in his ordinary fashion, wafting anyway his tangy burly leaf and sweat bouquet with his customary hint of livestock dander and his undertone of Scope. He visited, it seems, an extended piece of talk on the fellow just behind him in line, that middle Quinsenberry with the droopy eye and the jagged fractured bicuspid."
In this long-winded fashion (which, by the way, reserves the greatest contempt for media types, not rednecks), Pearson also weaves a bit of intrigue and fantasy into his rural Virginia setting. Deputy Ray Tatum, one of the few bright bulbs in this southern lightbulb factory, has never given up the case of a local missing child. While checking on Clayton, he hears the greasy-haired oracle utter a few cryptic words that bear directly on the girl's disappearance. Not only that, Ray can't help but notice that ever since Clayton has stopped turning the TV to adult cable channels, the old-timer seems to be channeling a long-dead Antarctic explorer.
Pearson lives in Virginia and is the author of eight novels, including the popular "A Short History of a Small Place."
Sure there's a little murder mystery in Mary Kay Andrews's Savannah Blues (HarperCollins, $24.95). There's also a little romance thing between the newly divorced heroine and a studmuffin chef. But what lies at the heart of this beach read are the estate sales of Savannah. The thrill of stepping inside a grand old rice plantation house and hearing bells go off in your head as you eye a one-of-a-kind, slave-built corner cupboard. Of plunging your hands into a box and pulling out hemstitched Irish linen. Of prying open a metal footlocker and discovering a first issue of Playboy in mint condition.
Rich socialite murders are a dime a dozen. But unpacking box after thrift-sale box of jadeite dishes and mugs - enough to stock a small 1950s diner - now that's something to write home about.
Andrews (a pseudonym for Atlanta author Kathy Hogan Trocheck) is a former journalist who also lived and "junked" for antiques in Savannah.
What's a southern,
middle-aged, white, male baby boomer to do when he loses the
job of a lifetime? In both Doug Marlette's The Bridge
(HarperCollins, $26) and Robert Inman's Captain Saturday
(Little, Brown, $24.95), the protagonists (a New York cartoonist
and Raleigh weatherman, respectively) deal with their setbacks
by returning to their southern roots. Gradually, after liberal
doses of family history and enough strong, sweet iced tea to
float a barge, the men regain their balance -- and their terrific-looking
wives! Is this the beginning, or end, of a new genre in southern
An edited version of these reviews appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2002