Thursday, June 22, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: Time, place ... and memory

Two years ago, Steve Yarbrough woke up the morning after Christmas in his father’s house in the small town of Indianola, Miss. After a long day’s journey, he and his daughter fell asleep in another small town that haunts his fiction: Archer City, Texas.

Indianola is Yarbrough’s hometown; Archer City is Larry McMurtry’s. Indianola has been transmogrified in Yarbrough’s body of work into fictional Loring, Miss.; Archer City casts its bleak shadow as Thalia, Texas, where McMurtry unreels “The Last Picture Show.”

These two towns (and their doppelgangers) vary slightly but occupy the same landscape in Yarbrough’s imagination. Although he sometimes wonders if he’d have become a novelist at all if he had not read “The Last Picture Show” in high school, his seventh novel, “The End of California” (Knopf, 320 pages, $23.95), leaves no doubt about McMurtry’s influence – and further cements Yarbrough’s reputation as one of the brightest contemporary Southern-lit writers since Pat Conroy.

“The End of California” is, in the same breath, a story of homecoming and dislocation. Like McMurtry’s Thalia, Loring is a disheartened and disheartening place where everybody knows your secrets and ambition equals an escape plan.

Twenty-five years ago, high school football star Pete Barrington escaped to California and never looked back -- that is, until scandal rocks his medical practice. He finds sanctuary back home in Loring, where he opens a new practice, renews old friendships and releases old ghosts while his betrayed wife and petulant daughter adjust to the foreign-ness of rural Mississippi.

But Barrington’s homecoming scrapes open wounds, too. Piggly Wiggly manager Alan DePoyster’s own painful past begins a slow, toxic ooze into the present. His small-town Southern comfort is the warm embrace of his own faith -- in God, his family and in his community – and Barrington has always represented a kind of venal success which threatens all that is good and pure. While DePoyster is exceedingly faithful, he’s not blind:

“He waited in his pew, paging through the church bulletin to avoid people’s glances,” Yarbrough writes. “He had never ceased to be bothered that folks behaved differently in church than they did anywhere else. Nobody here, if they saw him at Wal-Mart Tuesday evening, would call him Brother Alan or Brother DePoyster, as all of them would now if their gazes happened to meet.”

Oh, and there’s the delicate issue of Pete Barrington’s teen-age fling with DePoyster’s lecherous mom. It underlies every impulse and that’s where their conflict hinges. It’s also where the parallels with “The Last Picture Show” are most palpable. Imagine the unfolding story if Sonny Crawford suddenly fell into Thalia -- and Ruth Popper’s family’s life -- 25 years after the Royal Theater showed its last movie.

But “The End of California” is no knock-off of McMurtry’s atmospheric novel. Yarbrough paints an evocative portrait of a place and people (and sustains them over time and several books) like a fellow Mississippian, William Faulkner. The Barrington and DePoyster families are every bit as complex as Faulkner’s Snopeses and Compsons, rendered in a clear, contemporary narrative that unfolds in the sinewy prose that has marked Yarbrough’s earlier work.

In fact, Yarbrough was a 2005 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist for “Prisoners of War,” a richly drawn novel about people on both sides of a World War II POW camp in Mississippi. Its sophisticated, subtle rhythms echo in “The End of California,” more complex in both its structure and concept without Faulkner’s gothic entanglements.

Yarbrough, a former writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi, now teaches creative writing at California State University in Fresno. That’s a long way from complex little Indianola, Miss. (Pop. 12,055), the birthplace of both bluesman B.B. King and the Citizens’ Council, or white-collar Klan. Now 49, he hasn’t lived there since he was 21 and he doesn’t want to, but he clearly still feels affection for the place. They belong to each other.


Chancelucky said...

It appears that we're both fans of "setting" serving as a major character in fiction. I'll have to check out Steve Yarborough.

fwiw, I don't know if you caught the recent story about Gabriel Garcia-Marquez's hometown proposing to change its name from Aracataca to "Macondo", Marquez's fictional version of his home. Apparently, it has to do with tourist dollars, but it seems to ignore what happens to the town in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Power of fiction can be very odd at times.

Ron Franscell said...

Yes, I saw the Macondo story!

As a western-regional literary writer myself (it's always hard to say "western writer" and be sure people will understand you don't write "westerns") "place" is terribly important to me in a story. I grew up in the Rockies, where the landscape and the climate are important players in almost every decision you make. To say the landscape is critical to a western story is maybe an understatement.

But Yarbrough is a gifted Southern writer and he exhibits the characteristic of gifted Southern writers to capture the complexities of family and neighbors. I highly recommend him.