The life of the passionately unspoken characterizes small-town literature -- think Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor -- and the best of it comes from the American South. Two new novels capture the ordinariness and mystery of an entire life lived in a small, closed-off place, one set in 1920s rural southern Vermont and one in a mythical Mississippi town that has laid stagnant for all of the 20th century.
By Art Corriveau
(Penguin Books: New York) $13/paperback
In Housewrights, first-time novelist Art Corriveau tells the story of Lily Willard, the lone sister in a family full of brothers who dreams of romance and adventure only to eventually become the town librarian in the staid village where she grows up. When she is 10, Lily meets twins Oren and Ian Pritchard, the sons of an itinerant house builder hired by her father to construct a new house, and falls in love with both of them. Ten years later, Oren returns to Lily's town after growing up on the road and asks her to marry him.
When Ian comes home from World War I, injured and shell-shocked, Oren and Lily take him in and the three fashion a life together. Then one night at a Grange Hall dance, Lily dances a drunken waltz with both brothers, setting the town tongues wagging. Housewrights is about quiet, private lives and what can and cannot be revealed about them -- what, although pure and innocent, falls outside the realm of acceptable society. Corriveau fashions a tightly structured drama within the strictures of a world he obviously knows intimately.
The Heaven of Mercury
By Brad Watson
(W.W. Norton & Company: New York) $23.95/hardcover
Brad Watson, on the other hand, writes about the small town of Mercury, Miss. with broad strokes, lush prose and the fired-up imagination of a wise old bard. In The Heaven of Mercury we come to know Finus Bates, 89, the town journalist who has been driven by his love for Birdie Wells since he saw her turning naked cartwheels on the riverbank when both were children.
Birdie marries feckless, philandering Earl, even after Finus technically wins her hand in a game of poker, and lives the life of a pampered housewife, peppered with occasional tragedy but largely unremarkable except as imagined in Finus' lovesick heart. Heaven follows them through the century -- through Finus' loveless marriage to the aptly named Avis Crossweatherly, through the birth and loss of children, through widowhood and old age -- and little happens besides the creation of a perfect little universe, filled with all the magic, insanity, rage and love a near-perfect novel can contain.
Watson, winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his stunning story collection Last Days of the Dog-Men, is particularly adept at setting tone and pace. The Heaven of Mercury meanders through 80-some years at the pace of a story told over a long, slow dinner, but never falters or risks losing the reader's interest. It's part human comedy, part Southern gothic, all Americana, laced with the tender and vicious tendrils of love and longing. The cast of characters is unforgettable -- especially those slightly beyond the pale of modern life, stuck in their small-town ways and eccentricities.
Watson writes about missed chances expansively and charitably, reminding us that all of life's a chance and hanging around to see what all we've missed is the biggest risk of all.
-- Kathryn Eastburn