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Wednesday, 15 August 2007 00:00

Heading Home waffles but New Stories shines

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Choosing the genre in which to write is, of course, a major factor in the success with which we communicate our message to others. Theodore Dalrymple, for example, has chosen the essay as his vehicle for addressing the violence and cultural deterioration in the West today. Yeats raises these same concerns in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” — ”The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned” — but used poetry to bring home his point.

In his novel Heading Home (ISBN 978-0-6151-5239-4, $12.50), local author John Malone blends history, genealogy, and fiction together in his re-creation of life on the Ohio River in the middle of the nineteenth century. Here is the story of Tom Malone, a child of Irish immigrants who tries to escape his harsh home life by joining a troop of Pennsylvania volunteers in 1862. Told that he is too young to join the Army, Tom returns home, is beaten by his father and verbally chastised by his mother, and leaves again as soon as he turns 18 to work aboard a towboat.

Tom experiences many adventures on the river. Several times he and his fellow crew members encounter Confederate raiders, including troops under Bedford Forrest who, until the end of the war, terrorized Northern civilians and soldiers. After the war, Tom continues to advance himself in his chosen career of riverman and to experience enormous difficulties with his parents whenever he returns home. On his travels, Tom also meets Roxa Powell, whom he will eventually marry. Much of the story regarding them contrasts their two faiths: Tom is Irish Catholic while Roxa is a Baptist.

In its historical depictions, Heading Home has much to recommend it. Malone gives us a warm picture of the life of the rivermen at a time when steamboats and industrialization were both bringing major changes to America’s inland waterways. His descriptions of fighting the Confederates as told from the viewpoint of these rivermen will interest any student of the Civil War. He includes a good deal about the boats, the homes along the river, and the demands these crews faced, including such land-based labors as hog-dressing and farming.

Where Heading Home runs into trouble is on the fictive side of the genre fence. Too often the writing has a flat quality; Malone tends to tell us about his characters rather than show them to us. Often, too, the descriptions are stereotypical; Tom’s mother, for example, is in the kitchen “surrounded like a mother hen by her three daughters.” This same page has Tom’s face burning, a chilly silence, a lump in his throat. In his description of the passion of Roxa and Tom, Malone pelts the reader with hackneyed phrases:

He pulled her toward him above the churn and their lips met hungrily. Leaning forward, she pulled his hands toward her with a soft moan of desire and rubbed his palms against her firm young breasts as they continued to kiss, their tongues exploring each other.

Malone can write better than this — he does so in parts of the book, particularly when addressing historical events. This unevenness seems to indicate that he might have given more power to his story by writing it as history.

Malone also misses the mark in some ways in terms of his descriptions of Tom’s Catholicism — or at least of Catholicism in that period of American history. Here again in his historical descriptions he brings to light some little-known incidents of Catholics attacking Orangemen, or Scotch-Irish Protestants, in their annual parades. Yet Malone brushes aside the vehement anti-Catholicism of the age that led to everything from job discrimination to the burning of Catholic churches. Riverman Tom Malone wonders at one point how Catholics could be so biased toward Protestants. Are we to assume that he has absolutely no sense of the history of his homeland, of the English attempts from Cromwell onward to eradicate Catholicism in the Emerald Isle? Author Malone repeats several times that the Catholic Church discouraged reading the Bible, but it is a Catholic priest who gives Tom Malone his Bible.

Malone will sign books and meet the public on Aug. 18 at Blue Ridge Book and News in Waynesville and on Aug. 26 at Malaprops in Asheville.

•••

New Stories from the South: 2007 — The Year’s Best (13-978-1-56512-556-8, $14.95) contains stories from best-selling authors and from relatively unknown writers. Rick Bass, James Lee Burke, Allan Gurganus, and R.T. Smith are writers whose works have sold well and who are familiar to many readers, and their excellent stories doubtless deserve their place in this anthology. Burke’s “A Season of Regret” stands out as a fine story of age and what it does to a man, good and bad, the cost of compromise, and the place of evil in the world.

Other writers who are either beginning to be published or whose works have not received such widespread recognition are exciting to read precisely because we aren’t so familiar with their work. In “Life Expectancy,” for example, Holly Goddard Jones gives us a girls’ basketball coach who has taken one of the players as his lover. Josie, who is 18, is soon pregnant, and the coach, Theo, faces both the loss of his job and the loss of his own wife and child. Jones takes us inside the coach‘s world, allowing us to feel his emotions as he heads toward the inevitable and disastrous consequences of his actions.

Edward P. Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winner, deserves much credit as the editor for this collection and its fine stories. In all these stories, we understand what Jones means when he tells us in his splendid introduction that “I knew it was the South right away because I recognized the landscape, I recognized the voices, I knew the trials and tribulations.“

Congratulations should also go to Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, which has done so much over the years both for fiction writers and for Southern literature in general.

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