In an alternative universe — one absent of the COVID-19 pandemic — New York Times bestselling author Lee Smith would have been celebrating the April 21 release of her novella Blue Marlin at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café. Instead, the author is adhering to the state mandate, keeping safe inside her Hillsborough home.
The characters in her latest work, however, are unbound. Based loosely on Smith’s own childhood experiences, Blue Marlin tells the story of 13-year-old Jenny Dale, who, in 1958, tries to simultaneously understand her parents and save their dissolving marriage.
“She develops this kind of magical thinking where she believes if she does so many good deeds, she can influence the course of events and bring her parents back together,” says Smith. “When you’re a child, you so badly want to believe that your actions can have any kind of control over life.”
Though the story begins in Virginia, it ultimately concludes on the beaches of Key West, Fla., where Jenny accompanies her parents on a vacation intended to reignite the couple’s former flame (put out by infidelity and mental health issues). The fraught road trip is marked by long periods of silence and chain-smoking inside a silvery-gray fishtailed Cadillac. When the family finally arrives to Florida, they discover their motel is overrun by some of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors, in the midst of filming a new movie.
In between these two destinations, Jenny also grapples with the uncertainties of her own transformation into young adulthood. At times, she remains delightfully naïve and childlike, spying on neighbors like Randy Ainsley, the coolest kid from school as he pops pimples in his bathroom mirror.
Other times, she daydreams of her future sexual conquests. “I was simply dying to get my period, grow breasts, turn into a sexpot and do as much damage as Mama,” writes Smith in the novella’s early pages.
Jenny’s experiences combine humor and tragedy, packing a deep emotional resonance within the book’s 114 pages. The work also recreates the late 1950s — with its moral rigidity, bomb shelters and Hollywood stars — without slipping into elements of caricature or cliché.
Smith says she was looking forward to celebrating Blue Marlin’s release at Malaprop’s. But in the wake of COVID-19, she remains hunkered down, revisiting some of her favorite writers and poets, including Flannery O’Connor, William Butler Yates, John Keats, Ron Rash, Fred Chappell and Kathryn Stripling Byer.
“Everybody else I’ve talked to during this pandemic is doing things like cleaning out their closets,” Smith says with a laugh. “I haven’t done one single thing like that. I’m pulling out the poetry. That’s what I’m doing.”
Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café is currently offering free home delivery to Buncombe County residents for orders of two or more books. To learn more, visit avl.mx/720.
UPDATE 4/17/20: Malaprop’s is hosting a free virtual event with Smith on Tuesday, April 21 at 4 p.m. For more information, visit avl.mx/72v.