I was reading my five-year-old son a story about dragons, when he threw me an unexpected question: “Dad? Was Katrina some kind of monster? Robbie’s big brother was talking about her at school. He said Katrina smashed his grandparents’ house a long time ago.”
For most of us living close to the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Katrina, which struck on August 29, 2005, was a monster of nearly mythical proportions, and for my son who was born five years later, the carnage Katrina inflicted seems beyond reality, the work of cartoon meanies with raspy voices and serrated teeth. Yet she was entirely real, and the destruction she wrought created millions of individual stories that make up the larger story of our nation’s weird relationship with Katrina.
Most of us who are over 20 can point to a few big events that set us on the road to adulthood. For the never-named narrator of M.O. Walsh’s debut novel, My Sunshine Away, it was the rape of his teen crush during her sophomore (his freshman) year of high school, Lindy Simpson. The narrator and Lindy have been neighbors since grade school, during which time he has harbored an innocent, but obsessive love for her. The search for the unseen rapist—who knocked her off her bike and forced her face into the ground—brings all the neighborhood oddballs into suspicion. It also brings the narrator closer to realizing his puppy-like fantasy. Unfortunately, he implicates himself in the process, in multiple ways. During this time, his divorced parents are still acting out their drama, and then his sister is killed in a car accident, leaving no adult—except a loveable but unstable uncle—with time or emotional bandwidth to spare for him as he lurches toward maturity.
Number two on Kurt Vonnegut’s famous eight-item to-do list for fiction writers is: “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.” But not too much, one might add. Smith Henderson strikes the balance between likeable and unlikeable admirably in the protagonist of his debut novel Fourth of July Creek. Set in rural Montana, the novel follows Pete Snow, a social worker who rescues children from abusive and dysfunctional families. We like Pete. He gets kids out of dangerous houses with drug-dealing parents, as seen in the novel’s opening scene in which Pete responds to a domestic dispute between one of his clients, teenage Cecil, and his speed-addicted mother—Cecil’s on the roof of the house, Mom’s shooting at him with a pellet gun.Pete knows that this is noble work without being self-righteous about it. He’s funny. When the officer tells Pete that Cecil knocked himself out running into the tailgate of a pickup truck, Pete’s sole response is, “I imagine that was satisfying.” But as the novel progress, we begin to dislike him, too. He slugs Cecil in the stomach. He admits to alcoholism but does nothing about it. We’re not talking about quiet tippling here. He drinks himself into violence, punching out his own car windows on one occasion, then blacks out. He can be a bit of a misogynist.
I’ll be honest: when The Common asked me to review Ros Barber’s new book, The Marlowe Papers, I was leery. Novels-in-verse aren’t really my thing. Reading the back cover blurbs, I became even more skeptical: a novel in iambic pentameter (rhymed and blank verse) from the point of view of the English poet, playwright, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), whom conspiracy theorists claim was the real author of Shakespeare’s plays? The book claims Marlowe’s death, in a bar-fight before the Church of England could charge him with heresy, was staged to let him escape England. And while in hiding, he ghost-wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays.
What the hell? I expected an overwrought, creepy fan-fiction piece in archaic diction and clumsy meter. After reading a few pages, I realized I owed Ms Barber an apology. This is a damn fine book.
Southern writer can be a term of endearment or an epithet. The late Mississippi-born novelist and short-story writer, Barry Hannah, bristled at the label. “Professional Southerners sicken me,” he said. Yet to my ear, Hannah’s work sounds entirely Southern.
Being from Mississippi and sounding it (I’m sure), I can’t help but feel that idiom has more to do with the Southern-ness of literature than geography. So I found myself at a loss when I began reading David Middleton’s The Fiddler of Driskill Hill. The content of Middleton’s poems is undeniably Southern: Louisianan, precisely.