The latest word

Southern novel ranks high in poignant humor

Wild Blue Yonder

by William Price Fox (Crane Hill Publishers, 2002)

The beauty of this semi-autobiographical novel rings in a particularly humorous first-person narration. Sixteen-year-old Earl Edge tells us about his impoverished life in Columbia, South Carolina in the 1940s; about his father, who’s a hard drinker and hard worker; about family discord and nutsy neighbors — and it’s a hoot.

It’s hard enough to write solid fiction, harder still to infuse it with such humor. Mr. Fox does it in spades, to remarkably absorbing effect. (Earl tells how his father claims, when asked by his friend what one book he’d take along if stranded on a desert island, that that book would be The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — this from a man who spent a year in the state penitentiary for making corn whiskey. Earl explains: “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire did actually make an appearance here at the house. But [Dad] sure as hell didn’t read it. What happened was it arrived in a nice square box from the Book-of-the-Month [Club]. What happened next was he sliced it open on the glue line, dumped it out on the floor and started raising hell and calling the Book-of-the-Month Club a bunch of New York sons of bitches for not telling him it came in eight volumes.”)

Earl’s daddy could have been my daddy — neither man would admit their ignorance of such matters, but, instead, turned their ignorance to their advantage.

The cataclysmic event in young Earl’s life is the attack on Pearl Harbor. Dad decides he must go and do his duty and joins the Navy, and Earl gets into trouble with local authorities (“OK, so I had a couple problems — actually it was three”), lies about his age, and joins the Air Force. From this point, Earl reveals many of his adventures through journal entries. Among the first: “Dear Diary … Today is Friday, March 18th, 1943. Sitting in a drain ditch at Fort Jackson, S.C. … Rain stopped. Sun hot. Sky clear. Can’t wait to get into uniform. Great looking. Silver propeller on right collar. Gold U.S. on left. May have this backwards.”

We follow Earl and his fellow recruits through boot camp and then to pilot school in Texas, where he meets the love of his life, only to have it all go sour in a hurry. The day he plans on taking Wanda down to Mexico for a quick marriage, she rejects him for a young lieutenant, whom Earl knocks cold in Wanda’s front yard.

Later, at a local bar, Earl gets drunk and picks up a woman, to wit: “Dear Diary … Aug. 5th. After kicking First Lt. Ass went to the Cat. Picked up a fat woman. Ethel Raintree. Nice name. Didn’t see how fat until she stood up to leave. Must have weighted two forty. Small furnished room with only one window. One hundred-watt light hanging from middle of ceiling. Necktie used as a pull cord with rabbit’s foot on end. Can pull it while lying in bed. Chenille spread. Same material as Wanda’s bathrobe but chenille worn down and over the hill. Pillowcases greasy with soy sauce … Ate in bed. Very squalid. Feel superior to Ethel but very little else … After Chinese fried rice made love. Ethel even bigger than thought … Feel sorry for her. She can’t help it … Feel sorry for whole human race. Especially me.”

Amid the black humor there’s a deep poignancy here that anyone who’s ever been dumped, then sought solace with a lesser mate, will feel down to the bone.

As Earl recovers from shattered love, he gets his orders to go overseas to fight the Japanese. But Japan surrenders and Earl’s dreams of becoming a flying-ace war hero are as blunted as his dreams of matrimony with Wanda. In a final flare of celebration, our protaganist does a tango with a base nurse and realizes he’s still got a lot to live for. I highly recommend reading Mr. Fox — his is a rare voice that delivers both humor and pathos in the same paragraph.

William Price Fox teaches creative writing at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and is the author of four books of fiction. He will be signing copies of Wild Blue Yonder at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.) on Sunday, Aug. 25 at 3 p.m. Call 254-6734 for more information.

Tree book doesn’t flourish as it should

Tree Stories — A Collection of Extraordinary Encounters

(edited by Warren David Jacobs and Karen Shragg, Sunshine Press Publications, 2002)

With a few exceptions, the majority of these pieces were written by non-writers whose love of trees is obviously greater than their love of prose.

You’d think a book boasting “extraordinary encounters” in its title would at least try to live up to its promise. Unfortunately, this slender collection falls far short of its claim.

These works lack the one ingredient all prose should have — the ability to inspire. You’ll find it in Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, or in any of Robert Frost’s nature poetry, and of course it’s there in Thoreau’s Walden’s Pond — all love stories in their own way.

A book should be about more than its subject, and Tree Stories’ editors would have better served their audience by eliciting the very best stories and poems regarding said trees. (Beyond that, one has to wonder just how far the personification of trees can carry a reader’s interest.) Take, for instance, this paragraph, from a piece by Jackie Lee Hofer — whose bio lists him as an author and book publisher — called “Grandfather Cottonwoods”: “Today I stop and marvel at older cottonwood trees. I have a large drum made from a [sic] old, dead cottonwood. Having some Cherokee ancestry, I bear an inborn reverence for cottonwoods — young and old alike. Whether walking along a creek, or riding in a car, they attract like magnets for my attention and appreciation.” Such awkward sentence construction certainly doesn’t help.

But while I may not be a tree-hugger, I’m certainly no tree-basher, either. One or two of the collection’s works are quite good at establishing mood, time and place, including Judy Hoffman’s “Tribute to a Friend Who Died Fighting,” about a pair of felled trees in Roswell, Ga.

Hoffman’s plaintive voice is refreshing among these pages. However, it’s perhaps useful to point out the great irony here: We will never hear from the stars of the hour — those who were cut down and turned into paper so that their lovers could write of their passing.

Warren David Jacobs is a psychiatrist in Atlanta and Karen Shragg is a nature-center director in Richfield, Minn. Jacobs appears at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Aug. 31 at 7 p.m.

[Bill Brooks teaches creative writing. He is the author of 11 novels. For a complete list of local author events, see Xpress’ weekly arts & entertainment calendar.]

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