As they sometimes say, "This book is not for everyone." If you fear the thought processes of an intelligent lesbian, a silly, goofy, ironic lesbian, you'd best pass on this book and buy something safe, like a Dick Francis novel.
But if you want a faithful account of life in a family that is at once "dysfunctional" and intensely affectionate; if you want the true story on how divorce, child abuse, ready money, close friends, thunderstorms and tight-fitting girdles help to form the modern American consciousness, this book is yours. This book--in case you have one of these collections--is to be read once, then put away on the shelf for when you have the flu. It's the kind of thing you laugh yourself well over.
Blanche McCrary Boyd has the wit to know that life, sensations, perceptions, come in complex layers. Things don't "sort out" the way we'd like them to. Several things are generally happening to all of us at once. Thus, the young heroine here, Ellen Larraine, comes from a Southern family which is both rich and poor. Ellen's family grew up dirt poor; her father, a plumber, got rich enough to buy a crumbling 200-year-old plantation. But, then he died.
Her mother lived to paint the bathrooms garish pink and blue and to buy a mink coat. (All around them, in desiccated shacks from slave days, blacks live in dire poverty, with pictures of food from magazine advertisements tacked up forlornly on their walls.)
A "lesbian" story ought to be about lesbian love, one supposes, and this novel gets around to it, eventually, but life is not that simple. The first chapter here deals with a lifelong friendship and love for a little boy who turns into a paunchy 40-year-old, and nothing ever "happens" between him and the narrator. It's not, I'm sure, that the author is saying: I could have been "straight" were it not for the accidents of life, but rather that all life is crammed with accidents and misperceptions and undelivered messages and unbearable pain. Any one of us could be a thousand-thousand things, were it not for the short-circuits that life continually shocks us with.
Death, misery, agony and insane laughter snuggle up over and over again in this outrageous book. Very early, Ellen Larraine, the young narrator, begins spiking her Coca-Cola with spirits of ammonia, or just plain chug-a-lugging bourbon.
Her uncle Royce is an enthusiastic child abuser, a good old boy who runs over his own pet dogs for sport, but this amusing grotesquerie is coupled with the unbearable agony of an unexpected death in an entire other quarter. When Ellen Larraine's mother decides to remarry--bringing a gynecologist and his assorted children into this rebuilt plantation that has already become a neo-gothic hell-pit--you see the sadness and weirdness of modern life.
Ellen allies herself, for a brief moment with the stepfather she pities and detests. One stepsister ends up attempting suicide, another ends up literally in a tree, refusing ever to come down. Ellen's own birth brother is whisked off the plantation's front porch by a hurricane--into howling darkness. Who gets to rescue him? The man who hates him most--the reluctant gynecologist-stepfather.
Some families live happily--or pretend to. This book is not for them. Some people look around, and truly, they despair. There's a mother, down in the Deep South, wearing a mink coat in the humidity and heat, while down the road, a black family has pinned up pictures of cake. Some people live in a world where villains flourish and loved ones die. Where well-intentioned adolescents who don't desire each other thrash it out in cramped back seats of cars suffocated by girdles.
The wonderfulness here is that by hot, bright truth-telling, the author peels away a few layers of the horror and replaces them with healing laughter. Listen, she says. We can make it. We can get through. Let all those other so-called happy families go and buy a bunch of Hallmark cards and send them to each other. We've still got our own souls, our own reality, our own courage. That has to be enough.
Next: John Wilkes reviews "American Nervousness 1903" by Tom Lutz (Cornell University Press).