Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Reviews: "Fall Line," by Joe Samuel Starnes, in Plaza de Armas


Washed in the blood: Starnes' 'Fall Line'

The relentless naturalism of Fall Line pushes out of an anger ultimately rooted in a source that, like Joe Samuel Starnes’ novel itself, is of another time; but also, and equally relentlessly, of our own: class hatred. Consider this train of thought from the protagonist, rural Georgia failure Elmer Blizzard, whose final day on earth, Dec. 1, 1955, is spent trying to alert people about to be inundated by a new dam northeast of Atlanta –and plotting his revenge against those who created it:
He finished the cigarette and got up and flipped over the Ernest Tubb record and started it playing and sat down in his armchair in the den. He lit another cigarette and listened to the twang and thud of the music, Ernest singing about mean women — There’s lots of mean women on almost any street — a fact Elmer knew to be true right here in Lymanville, but he wondered why Ernest didn’t have any songs about the legions of conniving sumbitches that roamed the Earth.
In Starnes’ account, echoes of the Old South reverberate in the New. It’s not surprising. No part of America so seamlessly and simultaneously inhabits its past, present and future with such tragedy and pathology. “The more things change” was invented in Dixie. Any Southern writer who doesn’t know that isn’t worth reading.

Elmer’s day takes him on winding backstory trips around the lowland roads along the Oogalusa River, soon to birth a lake that will market energy and recreation to the emerging cities. A WWII veteran whose career as a deputy was ruined by his affair with a prison farm woman, Elmer now ironically works for the utility company building the dam. He realizes he has no future: job prospects are bleak and everything he has ever known, owned, or cared about will be disappeared before breakfast.

Crisscrossing the bottomlands looking for stragglers, Elmer’s mood darkens by the hour. The bitterest stop is at his family’s abandoned farm, swindled away by speculators. He grudgingly helps some Coca-Cola employees lost in the rural trails near the river, tries perhaps in vain to convince a black family and a stubborn elderly widow that it’s time to go, and eventually kills a loutish pulpwooder in a brawl based on nothing more than undirected rage.

Mostly Elmer broods about his cousin, powerful and corrupt State Sen. Aubrey Terrell. Known as the “Guvnah,” Terrell is the major profiteer behind the lake’s development. Every memory and encounter with the Guvnah shapes Elmer’s deepening hatred for the wealthy and powerful for betraying their kin, the land, and the people. Lake Terrell, indeed.

As the day wanes, Elmer buys ammo, gathers his guns, aligns with his fate. When evening dedication ceremonies bring on fireworks and bigshots, Elmer drifts back down into the river’s edge, angrily popping off rounds until he sets fire to the still-dry remains of his hometown. Soon the fire is smothered, the town flooded and the lake begins to form in the dark.

In the pre-dawn hours, Elmer rescues the widow, though not her rabbit-eating dog, Percy, who, in Old South literary conceit, prowls the hills as Nature’s occasional narrator. Elmer cannot let go his hatred of the Guvnah and all he represents and stalks him down to a secret clearing on a hillside not yet reached by the rising waters, where he is in a drunken tryst with a high-school cheerleader.

Starnes imbues Fall Line with a lyrical authenticity and nuance that captures a truth of place in time  (I know — I went to high school in this part of Georgia). In the end, though, it is difficult to feel empathy or sorrow for any of the characters. The lake wipes away Elmer’s fading yeoman class, and righteous anger confronts his bourgeois enemy, but no one evinces any moral stature, and all are filled with soul poisons, notably racism. In naturalist fiction, Nature does not judge what it engenders. The sun rises. The sun sets. Things happen. What happened in Fall Line was that a dam was built, a way of life vanished, men fell in the forest and there was no sound, only fury.

What happened after 1955 in the South was a succession of inundations: Civil Rights, Vietnam, the New South, the Revanchist South. So much water, so little cleansing.

Fall Line, by Joe Samuel Starnes. NewSouth Books, 2011.

Rod Davis is the author of Corina’s Way, winner of the 2005 PEN/Southwest Award for Fiction.  A new novel, South, America, is forthcoming from NewSouth Books.

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