"Glad News of the Natural World" by T. R. Pearson Simon & Schuster, 295 pp., $24 If Garrison Keillor and William Faulkner were joined...
“Glad News of the
by T.R. Pearson
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Simon & Schuster, 295 pp., $24
If Garrison Keillor and William Faulkner were joined in holy literary matrimony, with high priestesses Eudora Welty and Jane Austen waving an occasional wand over the process, their collective tale-spinning offspring might well bear a resemblance to Southern writer T.R. Pearson.
It is now 20 years since Pearson sprang the fictional town of Neely, N.C., on the world with his first novel, “A Short History of a Small Place.” That book, far from being a beginner’s effort, heralded the arrival of a full-grown writer sure of his voice — and, just as important, sure of his roundabout narrative strategies.
“Short History,” if you stripped away its digressions, was a simple tale about an elderly spinster disappointed in love who comes to an unfortunate end while chasing her pet chimpanzee up the local water tower. But it was in the book’s digressions, triggered by any character who happened to stumble across the central narrative, that Pearson’s North Carolina setting and his tender-acerbic understanding of human hopes and follies came alive. The result was a comic, symphonic portrait of the small-town South.
Now, in “Glad News of the Natural World,” his sequel to “Short History,” Pearson has returned to Neely and taken on a whole new locale — New York City — while he’s at it. The book is written in his new, more brisk style, but it’s still eccentric and often hilarious. The satire is as on target as ever — and as humane. And the narrative is a thing of Rubik’s Cube complexity, as Pearson links up the most unlikely story elements.
Louis Benfield, the teenage narrator of “Short History,” is now in his 20s. He has been through his share of inappropriate girlfriends (“I suspect that my mother prayed for Fay to accept Christ as her Savior or, at the very least, reject the tube top as proper public attire”). He hankers to do something creative with his life — acting, or maybe writing a “venomous-lizard novel” — though he believes himself to be “comprehensively ungifted” and blessed with only “a wan and meager strain of personal charm.”
As the book opens, we find him working as a car-service driver, ferrying grouchy passengers from New York’s airports into Manhattan. But we soon learn this is only the latest in a string of odd jobs — repairman for a local crime syndicate, bumbling extra in filmed commercials — that he’s fallen into since arriving in town.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Louis’ father, a longtime employee of Meridian Life and Casualty, initially found his son a job at his firm’s Long Island City branch (the descriptions of the insurance company office and of Louis’ one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, shared with three roommates, are unparalleled). But Louis’ workplace encounter with “pseudo-Romanian royalty” leads indirectly to his firing, and his eventual gig as a car-service driver gets him in over his head with criminal types, especially a high-class call girl whose backseat performances with her clients are Oscar-worthy.
As Louis gives his folks highly fictionalized accounts of his success in New York, he finds himself looking back on Neely with a mixture of disdain and longing. His thoughts about his parents are especially fond; his take on Neely’s restaurant scene less so: “There was a sort of taco shack out near the public pool which got by on corrupted adaptations of pulled-pork enchiladas, dirty chowchow and refried black-eyed peas.”
As the novel progresses, a pleasing back-and-forth rhythm is set up between Louis’ New York vicissitudes and his accounts of an increasingly mall-strewn, Yankee-retiree-infiltrated Neely. Against that rhythm, Pearson slips in a weightier, tragedy-marked narrative about a son’s attempts to please his parents and parents’ efforts to do their best for their son. The pressure to do well, the pressure to marry, Louis’ own feeling that he’s “intended for better use” — it’s all here.
It goes without saying that Pearson gets his Carolina cadences and details just right. But his New York is equally good. From the glorious “Lady Cosmina Jaru of Bucharest” to Louis’ America-smitten Yemeni neighbor and his hyper-devout Islam-convert wife (“a former Episcopalian from Dutchess County”), here’s a town — and a whole fictional universe — where you would best be advised to expect only the unexpected.
firstname.lastname@example.org. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has also published four novels.