November 2019 Reading: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; Plainsong; Shotgun Lovesongs; Where All Light Tends To Go; The Whole Town’s Talking

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940)

November’s reading has been a journey through small town America, starting with this beautiful novel set in a mill town in Georgia in the 1930’s. At the centre of the novel is John Singer, a deaf-mute towards whom many of the other characters in the book gravitate. Singer is a brilliant literary creation, mysterious enough to allow both the other characters and the reader to project their own interpretation onto him, warm and sensitive enough to feel genuine affection for. The chapters are divided between third person viewpoints of different figures in the town, from the teenage girl Mick Kelly to diner owner Biff Brannon, as well as outsider Jake Blount and the world-weary Doctor Copeland.

McCullers writes with a light touch; her prose is clean, not unsentimental, but never cloying. Although the book deals with weighty issues such as social injustice, the race divide, war and fascism, the huge themes are writ small, so that their personal effects can be clearly observed. It is hard to believe that McCullers was only in her early 20’s when she wrote this stunning book – the level of talent on display is incredible. It is one of those novels that seems to pierce the heart of the human condition, and a book I will definitely be revisiting.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf (1999)

Another small town, this time the fictional Holt, Colorado. Again, this book uses the interlocking stories of different characters – Tom Guthrie, his sons Bobby and Ike, Victoria Roubideaux, and the McPherson brothers – to build up to a whole picture of life in the town. The epigraph to the novel defines ‘plainsong’ as “unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple or unadorned melody,” and this gives a good description of the book itself. The understated, plain prose is used to tell a story that creeps up on you – there is a quiet confidence to the storytelling that seems to add up to more than the sum of its parts.

The book, like McCullers’ novel, is unsentimental and yet gentle, and refreshingly un-ironic. It is firmly rooted in the present moment of the story it is narrating – long backstories are not needed here. The sense of the passing of seasons is well done, leaving the reader feeling as if they have indeed spent time immersed in this midwest prairie town.

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler (2013)

Continuing the small town theme, my next stop was Little Wing in rural Wisconsin. This book came as a sharp contrast to Haruf’s spare novel; Butler’s prose is lush, almost poetic. His five narrators, Hank, Lee, Kip, Ronny and Beth, unfortunately all sounded a bit too similar to me – only Ronny has a bit more personality and idiosyncracy in his first person narration. I do feel that if you are going to use the first person and have multiple narrators, you ought to make something of the different voices.

Lee is a famous musician who returns home to Little Wing from time to time. The other characters in his orbit are all affected by his comings and goings in one way or another. The book contains a LOT of weddings, as well as characters on their way to a wedding which doesn’t actually appear in the book, and I did find myself getting a little bit confused. Despite the poetry of the writing, I never got as strong a sense of Little Wing as I did of Holt and of McCullers’ mill town, and try as I might, I couldn’t muster an awful lot of sympathy for Butler’s characters, either.

Where All Light Tends To Go by David Joy (2015)

Simplifying things a bit, this novel only has one first person narrator, 18 year old Jacob McNeely. ‘Daddy’ is a meth king pin, and his Mama is an addict living in a cabin. At first it seems that Jacob has accepted his fate as the heir to his Daddy’s meth empire, but then he glimpses another chance at a future with his childhood sweetheart, Maggie, and the possibility of escape from this life begins to grow in his mind.

I had one or two small gripes with this novel, firstly that Maggie, whom Jacob orginally broke up with because he didn’t want to drag her down with him, is presented as almost too perfect to be realistic. The ending, while extremely powerful, is also flawed. However, there was much that did impress me in this book, notably the way that Joy handles the violent aspects of his story. Despite its horror, it never feels gratuitous, and Jacob’s reactions are well drawn – he never becomes numbed to the trauma of what he witnesses. It is cleverly done, and Jacob is a sympathetic protagonist to lead us around this murky underworld.

The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie Flagg (2016)

Onwards, to Elmwood Springs, Missouri, my final stop on November’s ‘fictional American towns’ tour. In the town cemetary, Still Meadows, strange things are happening, and, like a comic version of the Spoon River Anthology, which I read last month, the dead are not quite as quiet or still as one might expect. The story spans over a century, skipping through the generations with ease, starting Lordor Nordstrom, the town’s founder, and exploring his legacy down through the years.

The characters are mostly endearing, not very deep, and a lot of fun to follow. They aren’t necessarily believable, nor do they leave a lasting impression, but this was an entertaining, somewhat frivolous read that gives lots of warm and fuzzy feelings about community. A feel-good, old-fashioned book, harking back to simpler times, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

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