Readers of Michael Parker’s previous fiction will not need to be told that his new novel, Towns Without Rivers, is sensitive and emotionally compelling. It is constructed with a fine sense of proportion, formally and thematically, and it builds carefully and vigorously to a fully earned climax. After this, his third book, Parker must be considered nothing if not a dependable writer: As a whole, the book works itself out with nary a false note.
More locally, however, I detected more than the usual run of false notes. These were, as they flashed by, intermittently vexing, but it’s what they added up to, and where they seemed to be coming from, that really bothered me. It was as if this book that I could see to be a fine work–poignant, sometimes funny, gathering in emotional authority as it developed–contained an inexplicable undercurrent of distinct badness, a sort of literary shadow-self. Late in the book, reviewing the plot up to that point, the main character, Eureka Speight (“Reka,” for short), reflects that “it sounded like a B-movie.”
Well, yes. This is a device most writers and many readers will recognize: It’s the point where the author, fearing that he’s gone too far with the melodrama of his plot, acknowledges that very possibility as a sort of safety net, a shield against potential criticism. As many writers and most readers know, it’s a device that seldom works. But it occurred to me, seeing Parker use it, that it revealed something about the current condition of Southern fiction as a genre. Towns Without Rivers, clearly one of the finest entries in the genre of late, still shows the strain of its generic underpinnings at nearly every turn. If I take Parker’s novel as an occasion for a somewhat more general meditation on the state of Southern fiction, it is because of the generally high quality of the book, and because I trust readers will know that they should read it, despite whatever caveats may emerge here.
The novel’s plot follows a brother and sister from eastern North Carolina, Reka and Randall. Reka’s been in jail for five years, serving time on a bum rap for the murder of her morphine-addicted lover Edwin. Having finished high school in jail, she’s set her sights on college. Reka gets a job selling encyclopedias from door to door out west. Meanwhile, the family patriarch, the usual sweet-tempered no-account who doubles as an abusive drunkard, dies, and Randall heads off to find Reka. Their interwoven travels make up the bulk of the novel: Randall’s adventures in Chicago, Reka’s migration to Seattle after an affair with a man in Montana, wayward trips now and then back to North Carolina. The writer’s challenge with such a plot is making us see the emotional connection between two characters who meet, if at all, only late in the plot. Parker meets the challenge admirably, and for all intents solves the problem: We see that these two feel connected because of their shared past and their shared sense of being outsiders, in their own family, and in the world at large.
Do I need to mention that this sense of alienation is basic to the conventions of Southern fiction? It’s a convention I’ve always found a little hard to take, since it is so often accompanied by a relatively fond attitude toward the causes of alienation. Even when the drunken patriarchs are at their most horrific, for instance, they’ll often drop humorously eccentric bon mots, and the Warm Family Feeling of so much Southern fiction routinely reinforces the complacent provincialism that produces “outsiders” in the first place. Southern fiction is quick to declare its allegiance with the outsider, of course, but in my experience, it frequently expresses a more compelling understanding of the insider’s contempt than that of the outsider’s outsideness.
That’s a generalization, obviously, and if Parker’s book errs in this direction at all (as books by writers ranging from William Faulkner to Eudora Welty to Peter Taylor to Fred Chappell to Josephine Humphries undoubtedly do), it is only in its humanely forgiving tone. Nothing wrong with a humanely forgiving tone, of course–unless it’s installed only as another of the basic conventions of Southern fiction. (It’s worth noting that a writer like Dorothy Allison was able to blow the lid off the genre through sheer anger only because this convention is so entrenched.) Here’s an exchange between Parker’s characters that is by no means atypical:
“I could think of a few reasons why he could be having a rough time.”
“Who doesn’t have a few reasons for that? Okay, some are better than others, but finally it’s your choice and not your choice–finally it has to do with how you’re raised.”
It’s possible that we’re not meant to take this character’s assertion, or the attendant implication that where you’re “from” is somehow a gauge of your essence, as a moral of the novel’s story. Let’s hope not. It’s an idea Flannery O’Connor, for one, would have satirized savagely as central to what’s wrong with certain Southern attitudes: “I can tell you come from nice people,” the grandmother says to the Misfit in O’Connor’s great story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” in a desperately hypocritical bid to save her own skin, just before he shoots her through the chest. But it’s the tone that’s striking in Parker’s rendering. It runs something like this: Well now, we all got us a lick of trouble and plenty to be ‘shamed for, but durned if we ain’t all in the same boat, come to that, and what’s the use on holding a grudge agin’ them that done you wrong–long as they’s family.
Needless to say, there’s nothing like such preposterous dialect in Parker’s novel. Though Southern fiction does love its purported oral traditions and its quirky turns of phrase, and does what it can to hang onto them, the convention of using thick dialects is clearly no longer tenable. Like that of most of his colleagues, Parker’s rendering of colloquial dialogue is decidedly more laconic than, say, Joel Chandler Harris’. “Don’t y’all even think of sneaking up to Speed’s,” says one character. “I told her she was crazy as hell, won’t no way,” says another. (At other times, characters slip out of the argot, like actors forgetting their accents: “I’ve been meaning to do so,” says a character who talks much of the rest of the time in the patois of the literary South. And folks up in Red Fork and Seattle, too, mysteriously slip into that same patois from time to time.)
We know, of course, that such locutions are not unheard of in our colorful region. And this wouldn’t be an issue at all, if it weren’t for the uneasy relation that results between the dialogue and the narration–an issue that Southern fiction, more generally, must often confront. In keeping with tradition, the third-person narration proceeds in a normative, indeed a highly literary voice, uninflected by the specificities of region. One consequence of this is that this very literary voice, that of the narrator, collides again and again with the voices of the characters, especially when reporting on their inner lives.
Randall and Reka are both bright people, intellectually ambitious in their way, but markedly uneducated–except for their own acts of autodidacticism, which form something like a sub-theme of the novel. Here’s a scene when Randall’s seeking a job as a welder: “Randall looked at his feet. He thought: He’ll think I can’t do it. Here I am looking away when it’s dangerous blinding fire he wants me to wield.”
Come again? “To wield”? Which is it, welding or wielding? Well, as Lady Bracknell might say, “Both, if necessary.” But the point is that this poetic effect–the slip from weld to wield, the heightening of the language–is completely unconvincing as a thought that Randall might actually have, even before you factor in that “dangerous blinding” part. It is a downright mistake to report this as direct thought. But even if it were reported as indirect thought, it would raise questions: Are we hearing what Randall thinks, or what a writer with a literary voice thinks Randall might think?
Another example: “His past proved paradoxical. He’d designed it that way, she thought, just as we all do, out of instinct and need.” This handy instance exemplifies not only the don’t-we-all-suffer tone, but the surprisingly sophisticated thought patterns of relatively unschooled characters. I’ll grant that Reka might know a paradox when she sees one, not to mention a B-movie, even though most college seniors I know generally couldn’t tell the one from the other. But what about the movement from the narrator’s voice–“His past proved paradoxical”–to Reka’s thought? To my ear, it’s too smooth. It’s the work of a writer who has not confronted the difference between his own voice and the voices of his characters.
One last example: Reka is considering writing a letter, and the following thought is attributed to her: “I can write them, she thought–[but] even the most tiresome and familiar epistolary conventions would be hypocritical.” Once again, as the most generous of readers, I’ll grant the “tiresome”–but “epistolary conventions”? That must have been some prison correspondence course! Clearly Reka’s a grad student avant la lettre.
One of the basic aims of Southern fiction is a goal that just about anybody can admire. It is to redeem the underreported lives of the impoverished, the illiterate, the geographically or otherwise marginalized. (Parker’s previous collection of short stories is called, suggestively, The Geographical Cure.) To that end, these books often adopt a lyric attitude toward inarticulacy–any reader of these books knows how they slather on the folksy lyricism, like whitewash on an old fence. And, oddly, they tend to celebrate the value of the literary in an unusually direct way. “That book cracked me up,” Randall says when he sees a girl reading “a thick novel by Henry Fielding, which it happened Randall had read.” The coyness about which thick novel this might be, and about Randall’s having “happened” to read it, may have something to do with Parker’s worry that readers could have a hard time imagining Randall curled up with Tom Jones, let alone “cracking up” over it. Parker’s more direct in reporting that “Reka sat by the stove–reading Madame Bovary for the third time.” Maybe it’s just professional envy–I’ve only read it twice–but this seems like a bit much from one who, when asked what she wants to study in college, replies with a cutesy fox-paw: “Books.”
The theme of literacy as redemption goes back in Southern literature at least to Huck Finn, or Frederick Douglass’ narrative–though the ineluctable Flannery O’Connor mocks this idea mercilessly in her story “Good Country People.” For her, the notion seemed like destructive idealism, as if the problem of the poor was that they don’t read enough. I’m as staunch a believer in the value of reading as most; I know it can save people. But I’m unconvinced that the best thing that can happen to the more benighted protagonists of Southern fiction is that they get to become more like the writers who are chronicling their tales. This common projection of literary sensibilities onto those unlikely to have them can only imply that other kinds of sensibilities are inadequate or stunted. Yet such flagrant condescension, in book after book, passes itself off as empathy and social consciousness.
It’s only Parker’s greater sensitivity that makes his treatment of this conventional theme a little more convincing than most. But the labors of conviction can’t help becoming visible in a genre that so prides itself on its own alleged verisimilitude. Too many Southern writers have taken to heart O’Connor’s disingenuous retort, when criticized for the grotesqueries of her work, that that’s just the way the South “really” was. Somewhere along the line, Southern literature put aside its heritage in the modernism of Faulkner or O’Connor (a modernist despite herself), and it got mired in achy-breaky realism. The implication that these books are somehow giving us direct access to the inner lives of marginalized people–the worst offenders being first-person narratives like Ellen Foster–is among the least appealing of the genre’s self-congratulatory projects. And the more these tired conventions harden into musty clichés, the falser these tell-it-like-it-is verities become. One can’t fault Michael Parker for failing to reinvent Southern fiction, since he didn’t try to do so. But maybe it’s time someone did.