by T.R. Pearson
Published by Viking
244 pages, 2002
Evermore Funny as All Get-Out
Reviewed by David Abrams
Read T.R. Pearson's novel Polar for the Voice.
The plot, such as it is, could be squashed down to fit inside an hour-long episode of Law and Order. Young girl disappears in the backwoods of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Local police deputy investigates. Eccentric character named Clayton, afflicted by the laser beam in the checkout scanner at the local supermarket, turns catatonic with prophetic visions, offering clues to the girl's whereabouts. Much meandering gumshoe work ensues.
But that's not what Polar is all about. Not really. It's that voice -- the digressive, authoritative, knee-slappingly funny voice -- that dominates the book and drives you forward from page to page. The novel adopts a formal, mannered Old South tone in which people don't die, they succumb; they "allow as how;" they are "evermore" going on about this-here or that-there. Folks from elsewhere are called "outlanders" (this includes uppity-mannered people who have moved to the area from, say, Ohio) and clear lines of distinction are drawn between those who demand the local grocer stock "exotic grainy mustards and hot dogs made with beef" and those who adhere to the store's unofficial slogan "For all of your pork chop, cheese food and white bread needs." Locals, with few exceptions, are generally referred to by their last names, as in "that Guidry" or "one of those planer mill Caudles."
Our verbal tour guide through the pages explains things in a way a local might to a tourist -- the local lover's lane, for instance:
Homer Blaine State Park has a network of trails and an out-of-the-way gravel lot that has proven highly popular with the local youth. We've got countless kids about at that age when they tend to be both hormone-rich and comprehensively parent-afflicted, and they flock to the gravel lot in Homer Blaine State Park for "privacy" they like to call it, a brand of seclusion that usually includes about a dozen dewy-windowed bucking vehicles with half-dressed girls and frantic pimply boys inside.
Of a "rambling frame white-trash plantation," he says, That house fairly cried out for a couple of gallons of high test and a match. He speaks like you just met him as he spilled out of the church on a Sunday and was still given to talking in Old Testament rhythms -- cracking wise with the Pentateuch, as it were.
So it's the clear-as-bell, sharp-as-cheese-food Voice which dominates this and Pearson's other equally delicious and deliriously funny novels (A Short History of a Small Place, Off For the Sweet Hereafter, The Last of How it Was, Cry Me a River). This is Southern literature amplified and just slightly exaggerated ... in the way a funhouse mirror can be said to "slightly exaggerate."
Cock an ear and listen to the way Pearson's unnamed narrator (someone who, if I were to hazard a guess, is in his late 60s and has very definite ideas of How Things Should Be) describes a particularly memorable mongrel named Monroe:
She was sullen and unfriendly, greasy, matted and vaporish in a grand and foully intrusive way. She broke treacherous wind, that is to say, with a kind of ceremony. She would still herself and hunker and tauten, and there would come upon her features an expression of devout concentration as if she were running the figures to reconcile the national debt in her head.
Cock your other ear and you'll hear the palms of Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner rub together as they shake hands.
Having said that, I'm probably the umpty-umph reviewer to compare Pearson to those two Southern pillars. In fairness, while there are plenty of good country people and Snopesian yakkers in the pages of Pearson's books, the characters he creates are a breed all their own with a vernacular at once familiar and unlike anything you've ever read.
In Polar, that country cavalcade includes Ray Tatum, the sheriff's deputy we first met on the pages of Pearson's previous novel Blue Ridge; Clayton, the aforementioned victim of the grocery scanner, who is evermore spitting out terse prophecies ("First ice. Skua. Cape pigeon. Petrel.") and drawing in charcoal an elaborate sketch above his living-room mantelpiece; and little Miss Angela Denise Dunn, the three-year-old blonde who up and disappears one day in Homer Blaine State Park. Ray becomes obsessed with discovering the girl's whereabouts, even through the trail appears to have run as cold as the book's title.
On the way to the somewhat disappointing denouement (disappointing, that is, for those thinking this is another "police procedural" -- which would be the same as calling Twin Peaks "just another TV show"), Pearson leads the reader through numerous verbal side roads and pit stops. With that one ear cocked to the Faulkner-O'Connor music, your tongue dawdles over passages that set up elaborate jokes, the curlicued prose creating such a unique and well-loved place it could only be called Pearsonville.
Year in and year out, we're likely to see a few barnyard deformities -- five-legged calves, carbuncled chickens, misshapen geese and ducks, and a Gillum out the pike had a few years back a nanny goat with a handle, a loop of cartilage you could shoot your fingers through and hold her by. We've got a rock out towards the reservoir that looks, for all the world, like a Parkerhouse roll, a waterfall on the edge of the National Forest that folks with no girth much to them can walk, if they see fit, altogether behind. There's an abandoned lead mine up a hollow from the river that's haunted, people say, by a fellow who got brained a hundred years ago by an errant chunk of slag. The story goes that if you sprawl beside what anymore is a weedy hole in the ground, only under the dark of the moon and around the witching hour, you're likely to hear that miner whistle a snatch of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" which we prefer to think a touch more eerie than your standard ghostly manifestation since it's uncommon for a gentleman to be both dead and patriotic at once.
If you aren't at least chuckling to yourself after reading that, there's something horribly wrong with you and I've a good mind to dial up your mother and give her a piece of my mind regarding her obviously sloppy habit of childrearing. I know of only one other contemporary writer -- Lewis Nordan -- who can make me laugh aloud so consistently.
This is not to say there aren't chunks of bittersweet chocolate sprinkled throughout the pages. Polar is not always the happiest of books. Some characters appear to be headed down the highway of despair, brakes shot and tire treads worn thin. One can only pray they coast to a gentle stop without flying off into a ditch somewhere.
One thing's never in doubt, however: Pearson loves each and everyone one of his people -- as much as one could be said to love cheese food, iced tea or a faithful hound who bestirred itself up from the yard-dirt to come lick your hand. Reading Polar, you'll allow as how it is evermore rewarding. | September 2002
David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.