What is apparent in the Southern novel is a wondrous ceiling--of history, of legend, of event, transforming the South itself into an extended family whose dark secrets are known only to its members. Southerners are not identified by their accent--but by their attitude, their human tempo and the heavy gravity of their antebellum past.
Sterling Watson’s remarkable third novel takes place in Swinford, a small Florida town on the Gulf of Mexico. The time is 1973.
The protagonist, Merelene Durham, 44, mother of two sons, one serving in Vietnam; the other, Roland, 24, a victim of encephalitis, has been ordered by the state to remand her brain-damaged son to a hospital euphemized as a training center.
As for Merelene’s husband, Mayfield, he left one night 16 years ago and has never returned.
Her constant companion during the years of Mayfield’s absence has been his presence in her memory. Hovering over her husband’s eidetic image are two unanswered questions: Why did he leave? When will he return?
In a place of fixed identities, Merelene has been “chewed in the mouth of the town for years after Mayfield left.”
Only one person has been there for her: Enos Sawyer, a lawyer, a member of one of the town’s oldest families, a man who went away, handsome and proud, to fight in Europe and to return--burned and disfigured.
Slowly the damaged descendant of the Southern dynasty and the abandoned woman become lovers. Enos wants to marry Merelene and help care for Roland; yet, the absent husband blocks the way.
One day, without the noise of arrival, her husband returns to haunt Merelene in a new way: with his presence.
Mayfield and Enos are not rival strangers, confronting each other for a woman’s love. They share a vast secret--one that breaks open the novel and lets the truth emerge.
During World War II, Mayfield was a fighter-plane mechanic. His dexterous hands were sought by all the pilots, but the officer whose plane he kept in the sky--was a certain young gentleman from the South. When these two men from Florida had free time, they would talk about Enos’ home.
Mayfield asked all the questions he wanted to know about one place, for he was a stranger to a home, to a family, to anything but rootlessness. And Enos would reply, for he was of one place: a small town called Swinford. His words transformed the town into a magical domain, complete with its very own princess, a young girl named Merelene.
Mayfield listened and became so drawn into the story that Swinford and its princess became real.
Later, on a mission, Enos’ plane crashed, and he was terribly burned.
As Enos’ mechanic, Mayfield was shunned by the other pilots and transferred to the most ignoble job in the Army--grave registration. There, in mud and debris, he pulled cadavers from the ground. Again, Mayfield’s skilled hands were recognized. He was given an important job: to make faces for bodies that had lost their. Mayfield reconstructed dead men to where they would be recognized by grieving relatives.
When the war ended, where else was there for Mayfield to go, but to the mythical Southern town he had heard so much about?
The night he arrived, walking out of the night, heading into that separate world--a beautiful woman was driving through the darkness and saw a young man hitch-hiking.
The car stopped. Inside was the princess Mayfield had heard described again and again. Outside stood the handsome stranger Merelene was awaiting to rescue her from Swinford.
Mayfield never told his secret: He had come because of a story.
Merelene didn’t tell him her secret: She, too, had created a fantasy out of a stranger entering the unchanging town.
They fell in love, married, had children.
As for the pilot and his mechanic, they lived at the same time, in the same town and met only once--by accident on a darkened street. They passed without acknowledging their common background.
All went well with the princess and the stranger until Roland was struck down with the disease that robbed his young identity. Mayfield felt he was cursed: the pilot’s crash, the red slush of the dead he was ordered to transform into faces, the encephalitic son, “who did not tire of the same toys because he did not grow older,” it was all too much. One more massive trick God had played on him. Mayfield fled.
Sixteen years later, he returns--rich, a success in the world of cosmetics, “making dead faces live.” Not cadavers, but people who have lost the joy of life.
Mayfield has come to take his son away.
Merelene, Mayfield and Enos must argue their ghosts away or become them. “The story has to stop” in Merelene. She must leave the Swinford in her mind for the one beyond herself where Enos waits, scarred, damaged, human.
An extraordinary story of redemption on a secular plane, “Blind Tongues,” reveals the one thing that can free a trapped heart: another heart.