Robert Gwaltney’s The Cicada Tree takes place in mid-century, rural South Georgia. A place where racial segregation and social class division serve as a background to a fascinating story about a local wealthy family and the secrets they harbor. And I’m not talking about typical “skeletons in the closet” secrets that all families have, especially in the South. I’m talking about secrets that, if told, could alter lives, towns, perhaps even the course of history.
The story begins with two young girls, one White and one Black–both third-graders and best friends, collecting “bushels” of cicada husks in their back yard. Analise is the precocious daughter of Claxton, the town drunk, and Grace Newell, a woman “gifted” with forbidden talents. Etta Mae is an orphaned girl living with her grandmother, Miss Wessie, who is the live-in made for the Claxtons. Both girls have extraordinary natural talents for music. Analise, a seeming magnet for trouble, also has a flair for mischief with level-headed and sweet Etta Mae serving as her conscious.
The 13-year, generational cicadas are a constant presence and din throughout the story. A biblical pestilence that seems to presage a greater storm on the horizon. One that eventually will break over the town of Providence, Georgia, laying bare the troubled secrets of the Mayfield family.
“They done come back you know?” He cupped his hand to his disfigured ear. “Can’t you hear them? Them ole locusts…they got secrets they keep. Things they know and keep buried deep down in the ground with them–until they have the mind to come back. To sing out what they know…mind your secrets,” Halbert said. “Keep ’em close.”
The Mayfields, Kingston and Cordelia, are wealthy socialites and owners of the Mayfield Pickle Company, the only major employer in town. Along with their daughter, Marlissa—also a third-grader, the family shares a mysterious attractiveness known as that “Mayfield shine.” A bizarre charm and allure that goes far beyond their impeccable beauty. They also share a troubled past—one filled with secrets, tragedy, and perhaps even ghosts. After all, what would a good Southern Gothic novel be without a maybe-ghost that represents past sins?
After a fire burns down the private school where the local rich kids are isolated away from the rural working-class kids, Marlissa Mayfield begins attending the public (White) school where she immediately becomes the most popular kid and begins a complicated and dangerous friendship with Analise. A mind-bending relationship that threatens to pull apart everything Analise holds dear.
Gwaltney’s descriptions of rural life in the segregated South are cinematic in both texture and girth. His use of dialogue, with only a smattering of vernacular—just enough to feel authentic, is a real treat to read. Equally impressive is his ability to realistically drive the first-person point of view of an eleven-year-old girl from the 1950s. One who is challenged both by the stifling social norms of her time and the magical realism that invades her world.
Pick up a copy of The Cicada Tree at your favorite independent bookstore or the usual on-line sellers. Clicking on the cover image below will take you to the Amazon site.
A version of this review was published by the James Dickey Review, 2021.
Why is it that we seem predestined to live our lives clinging to false doctrine designed to keep us mindlessly avoiding truth, in spite of daily proof that our misconceptions are irrational? In a time when having the loudest megaphone trumps reason, is there a place for critical thinking? Is there still room for true empathy? In his first full-length collection of poems, Intentional Fallacies, Edison Jennings explores the themes of falling from grace and its consequences, life and death, and what ultimately defines the sacred and profane. But perhaps most importantly, Jennings engages the reader to reexamine what they have been told to think and, instead, to use compassion as the way to find truth and understanding.
As in his previously published chapbooks (Reckoning, Small Measures, and A Letter to Greta), Jennings, in this 2021 release, proves to be a brilliant observer of the people and places in his native southwestern corner of Virginia. While illuminating the defilement and subsequent ruin of the once beautiful—now dying—towns of Appalachia, he wastes no time with subtleties. Instead, he slices with precision, revealing a misunderstood and complex world.
Jennings searches for, and typically finds, dignity in the citizens of these dust-choked mining towns. Many of whom are simultaneously addicted to both substance and survival. In the poem “Country Song,” a couple does what it takes to subsist in rural America:
and he drives a long-haul truck,
popping Addies to stay awake,
selling weed for an extra buck
to pay off their subprime loan
and not have their house repo’d.
“We’re screwed,” he says, “screwed to the bone.”
And despite their flaws, or perhaps because of them, Jennings finds beauty and treats his characters with respect:
And though they get high, they somehow survive
and manage to raise three kids
(who say they’ll visit, but never arrive).
Last night she held him while he was asleep
and heard him mutter, “ain’t nothing will keep.”
Whoever dies first, the other will weep.
Biblical references abound in many of the poems, juxtaposing the holy and the irreverent, a contrast no doubt common in many parts of the world but conspicuously predominant in the ancient hills of the eastern U.S. where Saturday nights and Sunday mornings can often be as different as, well, night and day. For example, in “Spontaneous Combustion,” sheep farmers come up on a burning stump. One of the men insist it is a burning bush, where he then “… knelt and asked its name…”. The two farmers begin drinking from a flask and joke about the divine imagery as they continue “working the meadows, drinking whiskey, mending fence, / sipping fire that maketh glad the heart of man.”
Hinting at the Eden-like splendor that once existed in these rural communities, Jennings pulls back the curtain exposing the horror brought on by greed, poverty, loss, and hate. Through many of his poems in this collection, Jennings examines people who have been put in the ironic situation where, in order to live, they must dedicate their lives completely to the one thing that will ultimately lead to their deaths. In “Tipple Town,” the residents desperately cling to religion and community as a major coal plant shuts down, eliminating jobs and leaving the town in state of apocalyptic dystopia:
The coal dust settles everywhere,
and fish are dying in the creek.
Mama thinks death’s in the air.
The coal dust settles everywhere.
Now Daddy drinks and doesn’t care
that mining made his lungs real weak.
The coal dust settles everywhere,
and fish are dying in the creek.
Jennings lays bare the hypocrisy of having compassion for only those who look like us, believe in our own traditions, or come from our own towns. Three narrative poems, “Cold Spring Morning and the Grade School,” “The Klansman,” and “My Fascist” cunningly reveal how unconditional love can shelter appalling horrors in our families, friendships, and communities. How we unquestioningly allow love and hate to somehow justifiably coexist.
Jennings reserves his most scathing treatment to those who willfully refuse to acknowledge the plight of their community, those who succumb to the allure of greed, those who strive to prove their worth by denigrating their very own neighbors, those who use tradition to justify hate. Similar to the paradox of how destructive industries or substance abuse can be both sustenance and death to the poor, Jennings demonstrates how the self-proclaimed righteous deliberately excuse, or in many cases, embrace those in power who are often responsible for bringing them ruin. In “The Financier’s Lenten Confession, A Dramatic Monologue,” a rich man reveals that as long as he appears pious to the working class, he will continue to be revered despite his greed and manipulation.
And while these concepts certainly pertain to our current tumultuous times, they are not new observations. Far from it. They are simply extensions of time-tested manipulations observed in societies since the beginning of time. The cover Jennings chose for this collection (Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve – one of the many illustrations created by poet and artist William Blake for an 1808 edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost) is evocative and gives a hint of what is found inside.
To take the metaphor one step further, Jennings demonstrates our gullibility before or during our seemingly inevitable falls from grace. The Dickey-esque poem “Rainstorm” tells of the youthful naivety of a reckless, hell-bound road trip “across the rich and sinful South.” Jennings then explores the unspeakable grief that often accompanies our collapse such as in “Blue Plate Special,” where a girl’s father and her boyfriend share a dinner together after her untimely death.
The poems collected in Intentional Fallacies are not only the continuation of the story of the fall of man, but how we struggle with the consequences of decisions—those made by us, and those made for us. Jennings uses gut-punch imagery to paint a desperate landscape populated by soulful people struggling against dire situations, and yet still searching for love and peace and meaning. These poems are expertly crafted and easily accessible, especially those written in narrative free verse. However, it is perhaps the more structured poems, with their almost singsong rhythms and clever rhymes that are most memorable in the collection, evoking the oral tradition of storytelling that has been handed down across time, civilizations, and traditions in this small corner of the world and beyond.
Available at Broadstone Books (click on image below), independent bookstores, and Amazon.
A previous version of this review was published in the 2021 issue of the James Dickey Review. Special thanks to the editors who worked with me to make this review better!
THE UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KENTUCKY, OCTOBER 26, 2021
During the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt, established the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as a one of his New Deal programs. The TVA was tasked with building hydroelectric dams in the Tennessee Valley area to generate electricity, provide flood control, create jobs, and energize the economy of the particularly hard-hit areas of the Southeastern U.S. From the 1940s to 1960s several dams were built across the region, changing the geography and displacing many river-based communities through the use of eminent domain.
In her debut novel, Drowned Town, Jayne Moore Waldrop explores the impact these reservoirs had and still have on families haunted by their removal from their homes, farms, and ways of life a half century ago. The story follows multiple generations of connected families who once lived in the town of Eddyville, Kentucky. A town now sitting at the bottom of Lake Barkley on the Cumberland River near the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.
“The sign memorialized U.S. presidents, vice presidents, and governors from Kentucky and Tennessee, but failed to mention the people who had lived in the town and given up their homes as the giant lake rose. They had been told their sacrifice was for the public good. They were never told how much they would miss it, or for how long.”
One of the two main characters is Cam Weatherford, an architect in her late 40s who was six-years-old when her blue-collar family was moved from their ancestral home to the newly-built town of Sycamore during the construction of the Lake Barkley dam in the 1960s. Now living in Nashville, she marries her childhood friend Owen with the wedding taking place near their hometown in a remote, recently-restored church that had been hidden and forgotten for decades after the valley was flooded.
“For the last few months she had focused on the future—whether to get married, what kind of wedding suited them—but today the past pulled at her.”
The second main character is Margaret Starks, Cam’s best friend since college and a high-powered and successful lawyer from an aristocratic Louisville family. Despite the two women’s contrasting backgrounds they share a sisterly bond. In Cam’s simple but supportive family, Margaret finds a stronger family bond that she had in her cold relationships with her own mother and father. However, because of her demanding legal practice in Louisville and the recent passing of her husband and parents, she has grown a bit distant from her best friend. While at her friend’s wedding, she rekindles her relationship with Cam’s family and meets Neville, an unsuspecting intellectual and another of Cam’s childhood friends.
As a result of her reintroduction to her Lake Barkley friends and the slow implosion of her life in Louisville, Margaret begins to find what is missing in her prosperous but desolate existence—a supportive family, a sense of purpose, and an appreciation of community.
“She now saw the place for what it was, one transformed by immeasurable loss but where something beautiful rose from all that was missing.”
In her novel, Waldrop explores many themes, such as love, loss, sisterhood, and the exhausting search for self-worth. But woven throughout the poignant narrative is the notion of change (sometimes unwanted, sometimes desperately needed) and the appreciation of the factors that make a place a home.
Available in hardcover at The University Press of Kentucky (click on image below), independent bookstores, and Amazon.
Born and raised in poverty in Lewis County, Tennessee, William Gay was a self-taught writing savant who honed his craft through extensive reading and an obsessive desire to put his stories down on paper. He began to receive literary notoriety in 1998, but he was far from an overnight success. His first novel, The Long Home, was not published until Gay was in his late 50s. Those who knew William tell stories about how, despite the overwhelming obstacles placed before him, he persevered to become an important voice in Southern literature.
Before his death in 2012 at the age of 70, Gay saw three of his novels published as well as a couple of novellas and three collections of prose and short stories. But, it turns out that readers had only scratched the surface of the body of work of this extraordinary author, who spent forty years or more writing in relative obscurity. Through the remarkable efforts of J. M. White and William’s family, several more complete manuscripts and copious notes and letters have been unearthed from scattered boxes. Three novels have been posthumously published from this treasure trove, and a fourth (Fugitives of the Heart) has just been released.
Like most of Gay’s novels, Fugitives of the Heart takes place in mid-20th century, rural Tennessee. The fictional setting is one that was familiar to the author who grew up in a time and place that lagged behind much of the rest of the country in its efforts to shed the horrors of the Great Depression and gives the story a kind of post-apocalyptic vibe.
“The train went on into the falling night past farmers and past rich fields heavy with corn, past weary sharecroppers who’d let the night fall on them leading their mules from the darkening fields, past leaning clapboard shanties yellowlit against whatever prowled out there in the darkness.”
The protagonist, Marion Yates, is a half-wild teenager who is coming to age in the 1940s in a deteriorating mining community. With an outlaw father who is murdered for trying to steal food for the family and a prostitute mother dying of tuberculosis, Yates is forced to fend for himself. With a Huck Finn-like passion for freedom and distain for civilized society, the boy rambles through both wilderness and what passes as civilization in a series of adventures which are at times both heartbreaking and darkly comedic.
Similar to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the episodic plot is held together with the main storyline concerning the relationship between the boy, Yates, and a free-spirited black man on the run named Crowe. However, while Twain certainly haunts this novel, Fugitives is not a retelling of a classic. The dark mood, the themes, the lyricism is classic William Gay storytelling.
A common problem with episodic plots is coming up with a good ending. Twain solved this problem, though in an arguably unsatisfactory manner, by bringing back his wildly popular Tom Sawyer to conclude the narrative. But in Gay’s world, there is no dashing savior who can swoop in to rescue the downtrodden. The characters, and the reader, are left exposed to the realistic, violent, glorious grittiness which has become a hallmark of great Southern Gothic literature.
In addition to Twain, Gay openly displays other literary influences in the novel. He seems to have found that elusive middle ground of writing in a very descriptive, poetic style yet one that is approachable enough for a casual reader looking for a southern lit fix. Gay’s writing effortlessly combines the impactful punches of Cormac McCarthy’s terse writing and William Faulkner’s love of language. And while some may argue that Gay’s prose can at times seem overly ornate, a careful reading will show that each sentence is carefully written, each word prudent and perfectly used.
“He willed himself to make his body immutable as stone and imperishable to the harshest weathers that the world could send. He stared across the grave and across the preacher whose worn hands kept trying to stay the windrustled pages and to shield them from the first slant drops of rain the wind brought. Across the valley to the far soft-folded hills where the hollows lay in dark secrecy and where pale mist rose and doves called mournfully as hawks rode the updrafts of winds like vaguely chastening kites of metallic feathers.”
Fugitives of the Heart is not just any old posthumous novel. It was not released in order for heirs to make money on something the author never wanted to see published. This wasn’t a half-written story, and this isn’t a money grab. Instead, this completed work of art was gifted to us by a group of dedicated scholars and fans who want the rest of the world to know and recognize the genius of William Gay.
If you’re new to William Gay, this novel is not a bad place to start. And if you’re already a fan, you certainly don’t need me to tell you that this is a must have in your collection.
Available in hardcover at Livingston Press (click on image below), independent bookstores, and Amazon.
BROWN CHICKEN BOOKS an imprint of SOUTHERN FRIED KARMA, MARCH 2021
In Mike Nemeth’s third crime thriller, John Parker is a former entrepreneur, data analytics savant, and ex-con embroiled in two seemingly unconnected crises. On one hand, he uncovers a plot by his employer (India Business Solutions) to deceive insurance companies into moving their customer service jobs overseas based on fraudulent data. On the other, his failing marriage becomes especially complicated when he suspects that his wife has murdered his deranged former business partner. Through an extraordinary set of plot twists, he learns that his many troubles are mysteriously linked complicating the choices he must make.
Nemeth unabashedly shows off thriller influences from masters of crime fiction such as Gresham and Le Carré. His character development for the protagonist is a compelling study in the differences between moral and ethical choices, self-preservation, and doing what’s right, giving the anti-hero an honest quality that becomes perhaps his biggest flaw.
Well researched and backed up with doubtless personal experience in the IT and business world, the story, at times, reads like a travelogue taking the reader on a trip through Atlanta’s upper-middle-class suburbs, Florida’s ritzy St. Pete beaches, and the decadent streets of New Orleans (the setting of a pedicab chase scene!).
Though often burdened with stereotypes, cliché, and unneeded characters, the story is easy to follow, entertaining, and quite suspenseful. Parker’s relationships with the women in his life—his estranged wife, his college-aged daughter, his ex-business partner, and his sultry colleague—can at times be a bit cringy, but in the end, it seems to work for this off-beat, quirky thriller where every choice has a consequence.
Pick up a copy of Parker’s Choice at your favorite local bookshop or at the Amazon link below: