Readin’ South

Autumn brings with it brightly colored leaves, a chill in the air, and longer evenings offering plenty of time to curl up with a good book. But before falling back on an all-too-familiar name or taking potluck with some total unknown, why not check out instead one of the many local and regional authors whose works are newly cropping up on WNC bookshelves?

Below, Xpress reviews three new novels, all set in the South.

Medium rare

“Actually, we’re all psychic to some extent,” explains Ev Chambers, one of the main characters in The Surrounding (Xlibris, 2003), the latest novel by Asheville’s Jim Lawrence. “Mediums just develop this ability to the point where they can merge their energies with higher spiritual energies.”

Chambers, a widower in his 70s, calls himself a “mental medium.” As he describes it: “Sometimes I’m clairvoyant … sometimes clairaudient … sometimes clairsentient … sometimes all three at once. But I don’t do tricks.”

Living in Cassadaga, Fla., a small town populated by spiritualists, Chambers begins receiving messages meant for someone named Katherine — and thus begins Ev’s shared adventure with Orlando newswoman Katie O’Hara.

Author Lawrence calls The Surrounding “a spectral mystery,” because it relies on clues from “the other side” to solve the suspenseful drama of who’s trying to contact Katie, and what this disturbed spirit needs to be able finally to rest in peace.

The story generates a sense of mystery without relying on the customary gory plot. Instead, The Surrounding builds suspense in large part by employing carefully documented details of Florida’s colorful history of spiritualism. Lawrence’s generally laid-back, occasionally riveting narrative weaves together a series of benevolent, supernatural encounters culminating in the palpable threat of a serial killer on the loose. The haunting ambiance of the wildfire onslaught that swept the thumb-shaped state in the late ’90s further boosts the book’s spookiness.

And then there’s the peculiarly matched team of Ev and Katie, whose relationship gels as the odd-couple pair searches for clues beneath hazy, yellow skies, amid ever-present veils of smoke. The unlikely cross-generational team — he’s a senior citizen; she’s a nubile 20-something — recalls the aging detective and her college-aged apprentice in Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. That British series, too, is really more about setting, history and common, garden-variety creepiness than Stephen King-style, apocalyptic horror.

Actually, The Surrounding‘s least-believable aspect proves to be its menacing killer, who wrenches the plot away from the book’s far-more-intriguing supernatural theme.

In the final chapters, the author also takes some questionable creative liberties in delving into the Great Beyond. And for this reviewer, at least, the enduring question of the afterlife — a solid subplot throughout the novel — makes for more compelling mystery than does the formulaic serial killer. (The murderous interlude, however, does serve to keep the pages turning.)

Lawrence’s other novels include Annie’s Angel and A Killing in Carter County. The Surrounding, self-published by Xlibris Corporation, is available by print-on-demand online at www.Xlibris.com, or by calling (888) 795-4274.

Pins and needles

Although author Suzanne Kingsbury isn’t a Southerner by birth, she’s spent a good deal of time in the region, researching her works of fiction. Kingsbury’s second novel, The Gospel According to Gracey (Scribner, 2003), is an edgy page-turner set in Atlanta’s seamy underworld of junkies, pushers and otherwise-broken lives.

The hypodermic needle on the book’s cover evokes a reality that most of us simply don’t want to know — though Kingsbury’s eloquent and straightforward style proves instantly gripping. The tale of 42-year-old Gracey, who’s seen and done it all, evolves with hypnotic grace from a police station interrogation room. The officers holding the African-American woman are hoping to get information on her ex-husband Sonny, one of the biggest drug runners ever to plague Atlanta’s streets. But Gracey, with exquisite clarity and poignant detail, gives her captors more than they ever bargained for, telling them not only about her underworld connections, but also about her own wasted life.

Meanwhile, other characters weave in and out of Gracey’s monologue. There’s Daneeka — transgendered, alone, always copping an attitude, and turning tricks to keep herself going. And Frazier and Audrey — upper-class teens who experiment with drugs to escape their troubled home, where their parents are trying desperately to rekindle some semblance of love in their own lives.

Kingsbury’s unorthodox style — the author doesn’t use quotation marks, instead blending dialogue into her characters’ monologues — allows the individual stories to flow organically through the narrative. The resulting fluidity helps carry the reader through what is otherwise a deeply disturbing tale.

As Gracey explains: You need to know what it’s like, ’cause you got it all wrong. You think somebody wakes up and says, Yeehaw, today’s a gorgeous day. Thank you Lord. Today I’m gonna get hooked on drugs. … It don’t happen like that at all.

Staring unblinking into the face of darkness, Kingsbury dares to give voice to those whose lives — and deaths — generally unfold far below society’s radar. And while the characters are fictional, they’re based on real people and situations the author encountered during her three years of research — interviewing users, riding in a van passing out clean needles, going undercover as a social worker to visit methadone clinics.

The Gospel According to Gracey isn’t an easy read, but it does what any good book should: It transports the reader to a completely different place. Kingsbury’s latest work is expertly crafted, deftly layered and, ultimately, executed with precision and grace.

Kingsbury’s previous novel, The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me (Scribner), was published two years ago.

Whose story?

It’s been said that the first book is the hardest to write, but local author Jason Broadwater‘s debut novel Abraham Two-Hill makes it look easy.

Part historical fiction, part romance novel, part small-town drama, Broadwater’s book depicts the rise to prominence of a mysterious drifter named Abraham. An opportunist and a charmer, the hero changes his last name to Two-Hill in honor of the cove where he finds a gold nugget substantial enough to launch his ambitious career. Later returning to that providential place, Abraham works his way into the lives and hearts of its town residents, ushering in the surges of modernization that will forever change the complexion of Two-Hill (a fictional country burg set outside of late-19th-century Asheville).

Abraham Two-Hill skillfully blends historical fact with intricately detailed storytelling, with Broadwater touching on the advance of the railroad, and the gold craze that set an entire nation on the move. He also probes the murky terrain of race relations just after the Civil War, and takes the narrative head-on into ever-pertinent questions about modernization, urbanization and preservation.

“Jebb leaned over and spat on the dark road,” Broadwater writes. “When he raised his head again, his wagon had come fully around the bend to face the valley. … He could hardly believe the breeze of change which had blown through Two-Hill. … He had expected, and rendered from anticipation, the stale empty pantry that was the valley of his childhood. Instead, he saw before him men and horses moving busily about.”

The collective adventures of the novel’s more-than-a-dozen colorful main players provide ample drama to hold the reader’s interest. Sometimes, however, the sheer head-count can get confusing, especially given Broadwater’s tendency to move fluidly between past and present in recounting each character’s complicated story.

Backwoods though they may be, the inhabitants of Two-Hill are anything but simple. Through their struggles, their reactions to the charismatic Abraham, and their ultimate redemptions (or downfalls), Broadwater spotlights universal human strengths and weaknesses. The dashing Abraham, too, hides a darkness revealed — and only partially, at that — by time.

Firmly rooted in history, Abraham Two-Hill evokes authentic emotions — confusion, disillusion and despair — that speak equally to modern-day ambitions and delusions. And that accessibility is perhaps the novel’s greatest success.

Abraham Two-Hill — self-published by Broadwater’s Prose Productions — can be ordered at www.proseproductions.com.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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