Saturday, January 22, 2011

Saturday's Best Book Diary: SORROW WOOD by Raymond L. Atkins

Sorrow Wood by Raymon L. Atkins, published by Medallion Press, Inc., printed in U. S. A., 2009.

Dustjacket:  This is one where the scan does no justice.  The dustjacket picture is beautiful and surreal, a broken down tobacco barn, personified if you look closely with loft windows for eyes.  The metalic blue floral designs yinning up and yanging down on either side of the title help add to its almost telepathic southern gothic vibe.  The cover design is credited to Adam Mock, the book design is credited to James Tampa.

Opening line:  "Wendell Blackmon considered the dead dog lying before him and wiped his sweating brown with a white handkerchief pulled from his back pocket."

I enjoyed the book, but I had misgivings about the opening sentence and indeed about the killing of the dog.  Mindless cruelty to animals is a jarring opening note, unless reincarnation and karma is involved or at least implied--such as when the monkey dies in the opening pages of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke: A Novel.  Two fine novels involving dog reincarnation immediately spring to mind:  Pam Houston's Sight Hound: A Novel and Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel.

Premise:  This novel is a love story involving a secular view of reincarnation.  The book creates its own mythic universe and is true only to its own rules.  There is a mystery but not one that whines and pulls you ahead like a greyhound on a leash.  The significance of the "murder mystery" may not even dawn upon you until the very last page.  But here the love story and the slow unfolding of character are everything.

Sheriff Wendell Blackmon and his wife, Reva, are the protagonists.  Reva is a church-going Methodist who remembers bits and pieces of their past lives together and it is important to her that they find each other again in the next reincarnation.

This sets up the main tension in the book for this reader.  The rest was just slow, ambling, southern story-telling, both corny and gothic, subtle and wordy, troublesome and compassionate, the unfolding of history and character and destiny, and character is destiny.

I found the book easy to read, but a lot of readers might have to adjust their reading tempo a bit.  As I say, the narrative voice and the pace of events is southern and in no particular hurry and the story is often told with humorous circumlocution.

I recall years ago recommending T. R. Pearson's Cry Me a River (another little known gem).  Some otherwise fine readers I know told me that they just couldn't get into it, that they couldn't get their minds around the narrative voice, that the prose was just too slow for them.  They said much the same about John Dufresne's excellent and wildly humorous southern novels, Louisiana Power & Light and Deep in the Shade of Paradise.

Many northerners have not yet learned to see any difference between southern accents, of which there are many.  Not all southerners speak with a slow drawl.  Think of the casting of the remake of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men--with one or two exceptions, the accents were terrible, as if they had deliberately cast foreigners to play those parts--and except for Linda Clarkson, they did.

On the other hand, my wife and I recently listened to the amusing Joan Hess story, "Hillbilly Cat," read by actress Jean Smart, best known for her role in television's Designing Women.  The lady speaks fast and southern naturally like dozens of other women we know, and her nuanced voice added greatly to the humor of the story.  About a cat who seemed to be Elvis reincarnated.

It might take an actor or actress with the talent of Jean Smart to do justice to an audiobook of the novel at hand, Raymond L. Atkin's Sorrow Wood.  Reading it, you'll have to find a voice to hear it in that makes it comfortable for you.  Here, the natural way the story is told is a part of its charm.

1 comment:

  1. That is a beautiful dustjacket design. I was reminded of "Finn" cover design right away...and might go to google to see if its the same artist, I wonder?