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April 2001

Shelf Life

These two can wait to be read

Provinces of Night **
by William Gay
Doubleday, 2000

Southern author William Gay’s new novel is set in 1952 in rural Tennessee and covers a year in the life of the mostly male Bloodworth clan. It’s a story about geographic, social and emotional isolation, which, ironically, is the one thing shared by the three generations of this family’s men. It’s also a story about the end of an era. Moonshine whiskey, shotgun justice, hound dogs, blues, easy women, honky tonk brawls — all the elements a reader would expect in a tale of the south are here.

E. F. Bloodworth is the legendary patriarch of the family, who returns to his hometown, after 30 years of estrangement, to make peace with his past and die. His three more or less dysfunctional sons, Boyd, Brady and Warren, know him more through the lore of the town’s old-timers than from personal experience. It’s Boyd’s 17-year-old son, Fleming, a lovelorn, bookish, loner, who, devoid of emotional baggage, manages to form a bond with the old man while embarking on his own road to self-discovery. While his characters and their lives, past and present, are at times entertaining, Gay’s novel is not without its problems. The author often goes off on descriptive tangents that have nothing to do with the action or flavor of the story and which seem to serve only as a vehicle for him to show off his “extensive” vocabulary. The novel’s narrative voice proves exceptionally annoying. Gay and his editors have decided that, in the name of art, punctuation is not necessary. Though this is not new to the world of literature, certain other structures must be in place for the story to be intelligible. Gay’s narration changes person and fluctuates in style from retro-southern colloquial, to pseudo-intellectual — and everything in between. The novel is riddled with sentences that must be read two or even three times to be understood: “Such town as there was and what there was of it asleep.” Though an engaging tale, Provinces of Night is rather more work to read than it is worth. William Gay should bear in mind that lack of commas does not a Faulkner make.

by Lisa Hock

by Jane Hamilton
Doubleday, 2000

Jane Hamilton likes to write about families and, in particular, about women defining their roles within them. To her bestsellers The Book of Ruth (1988) and A Map of the World (1994), and the less spectacular Short History of a Prince (1998), Hamilton adds her latest offering, Disobedience (October 2000). The novel is neither her best plot nor her most engaging writing, but an entertaining and introspective study of relationships that merits a quick read.

Eighteen-year-old Henry Shaw narrates the tale of his mother’s extramarital love life, much of which she conducts via email. Ever the helpful son, he innocently sets up an email account for her, chooses her new email nickname — Elizabeth, the mild-mannered pianist, becomes Liza38 — and shows her the ins and outs of electronic correspondence. Days later a wayward click of the mouse opens a letter she’s written to a girlfriend about her passionate affair with a Ukrainian violinist: “This is an old story. There is nothing new in it. His name is Richard Polloco. I could tell you that I have been waiting for him for a long time, but that is the sort of ridiculous thing that people in my position say. Here I go anyway. I have been waiting for him for a long time.”

Between his mother’s mail to the amorous fiddler and her extended afternoon absences from their Chicago brownstone, Henry is initiated into the world of adult disobedience. Her “neglect” acts as a foil, making other family members — his father, a self-absorbed history teacher, and his freakish sister — seem more pathetic than ever before. Their ignorance of the affair leaves them vulnerable, their world put unnecessarily at risk by Liza38’s recklessness. Henry realizes how important his mother is to keeping the family together when the threat of her leaving becomes real.

About to experience the independence of college life, Henry wrestles with love and sex in his own relationship with the ethereal Lily. As fumbling and inconclusive as any teenage romance, the situation causes him to question his future. He consults his mother’s Tarot card reader. “There is a woman in your life, a magnetic woman,” she says. “She is someone you want to love, but you’re having trouble loving her. You must wait for another woman. There is always another woman for you, Henry.”

Waiting takes on a role greater than innocence, infidelity or any other single theme Hamilton presents. Waiting to see whether the family can adjust to new, dangerous situations becomes a metaphor for testing the durability of relationships. Can we expect them to last an entire lifetime, or must they change drastically at some point? This is a question with which Liza38 — the racy “virtual” persona — and her son’s generation are confronted. Following your heart might mean betraying those you love, she discovers, but isn’t it best to be true to yourself? Disobedience, it would seem, cuts both ways.

by Claudine Weber-Hof

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