Reading the South
New Fiction by Regional Authors, April 2004
by Hal Jacobs
for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Robley Wilson's novel Splendid Omens (Thomas Dunne Books, $23.95) opens with a sudden reversal of fortune. On a perfect autumn day in Maine, an artist in his early 60s drops dead of a heart attack only hours before his marriage to a much younger woman.
Alec, the lifelong friend of the would-be groom, has just arrived for the big wedding, only to find himself helping to plan a memorial service. Also, he finds himself strongly attracted to the would-be wife, who seems to return his feelings.
Before he can sort all this out, he finds himself carrying out a final request from his deceased friend: to personally deliver the news of the death to the man's ex-wife in California.
Along the way, Alec discovers his friend's true motive - and his darkest secrets. Some uncomfortable truths force him to reconsider not only their friendship but also 40 years of memories.
As the narrator, Alec is a man who takes delight in the nuances of everyday life and the rich, often humorous, interplay between people. He has a critical, discerning eye and a warm heart - a highly attractive combination at any age.
The author, who lives in Florida, writes with such lyrical ease that even when Alec's world is rocked by his friend's actions, the story unfolds every bit as gracefully as the day of the would-be wedding: "a knockout day to declare love unto death, a day of splendid omens."
A young Southerner is haunted by deeds from his ancestors' past as well as his own in Scott Elliott's debut novel, Coiled in the Heart (Putnam, $23.95).
Tobia Caldwell is 7 when he lures a neighboring bully into a stream, where a cottonmouth delivers a fatal bite. Now, 21 years later, Tobia still seeks forgiveness. He channels his remorse into a lost cause that his forefathers would appreciate: Taking a stand against the suburban sprawl that has crept over his family's acreage, he and his father wage a campaign to buy back and replace nearby cluster mansions with farmland and trees.
In the struggle between new South and old, Tobia is a romantic holdout. He nurses his childhood wrong, meanwhile feeling an irresistible attraction to the twin sister of the dead boy. This strong flavor of Southern gothic permeates Elliott's first novel; its characters and events represent a dreamy, allegorical version of the South as it depicts the darkness that lurks in the region's still untamed heart.
Elliott teaches creative writing at the University of Houston.
Virginia writer Joe Jackson's How I Left the Great State of Tennessee and Went on to Better Things (Carroll & Graf, $15 paperback) is a darkly humorous fable set in 1961 that resembles the best of pulp fiction and the most deranged of 1950s drive-in movies.
The novel opens with Dahlia Jean Coker, a high school student who can't wait to escape her miserable confines in Wattles, Tenn. When a pink Cadillac pulls up to the empty diner where she fights off advances from the alcoholic owner, her dreams come true.
It doesn't matter if her rescuing knight is Cole Younger, a descendant of one of the West's greatest outlaws. Or that Cole's daddy is a Boris Karloff-lookalike who won't be satisfied until he kills Dahlia for snatching his precious loot from the diner holdup.
All that matters is that Dahlia and Cole stay one step ahead of their pursuers, which soon includes Dahlia's sexy cowgirl mother. In a novel that has more twists than a Chubby Checker concert, the young lovers barely survive a flash flood, mudslides, venomous snakes, Klansmen and several wronged wives, before hurdling toward a big showdown in Key West, Fla. Moral of the story? Never underestimate a girl from a little coal mining town.
The nostalgic South blooms again in Augusta Trobaugh's River Jordan (Dutton, $23.95). In this rendering of a small Georgia town forgotten by time and interstate highways, a young white girl discovers her closest friend to be a black ex-con in the kitchen.
Pansy Jordan is rejoining the community after a prison sentence for the well-deserved demise of her abusive husband. She and the precocious child, also named Jordan (pointing to a possible far-off family connection), team up to help others in the community. In the process, they discover a missing piece of themselves that seemed lost or unreachable.
Trobaugh, a Georgia resident, is the author of "Sophie and the Rising Sun" and other novels.
Sarahbeth Purcell's debut novel, Love Is the Drug (Atria Books, $23), could be alternatively titled My Big Fat Sex Drive. Tyler Tracer, 24 going on 70, obsesses over a former rock musician who spends all his time obsessing over video games. Will Tyler survive her seemingly incurable romanticism? Will she outgrow her need for making lists (one for each of the 23 chapters)? This is about rough love in the age of the Internet, and it's not a pretty picture.
Purcell was born and raised in Nashville.
An edited version of these reviews appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
Sunday, April 4, 2004.