Friday, June 17, 2011

Forgotten Book Friday: AS HOT AS IT WAS YOU OUGHT TO THANK ME by Nanci Kincaid

This is a little known gem of a novel, a southern gothic noir, a coming-of-age novel, a fable of the blossoming of Edenic desire, and a period piece of the 1950s.

The protagonist tells it in the first person, looking back, and the writing is insightful and charming.

The main mystery and the central noir tension in the book is the disappearance of her father.  He disappears under mysterious circumstances during a storm, a hurricane which spawns a tornado which spawns a flood and ravages the lives of the people in this small southern community.

 After the water has receded, her mother wants to search for the missing man, but the neighbors say that the road is washed out.

"The neighbor men were down off our roof now and circled around Mother.  I think they recognized she was a woman with her mind made up.  The kind of woman that can scare men--especially when the men are in a pack and in full agreement on the right thing to do.  One man can argue better than a group of them.  A group of men goes silent when a woman insists on something."
"They looked at her like she was crazy. But there was no use in trying to change her mind. The next think we knew, Mr. Burdett was in the truck with Mother and Sowell beside him, trying to start the engine, but it wouldn't turn over at all. It didn't even struggle to start. "Battery is wet." He got out of the truck, slamming the door behind him. He walked around to the front of the truck and popped the hood. "Lord God!" He stepped back like a man who'd seen the devil.'

"Sowell got out of the truck too, and Mother did. Wade and Rosemary and I ran over to join them. Rosemary screamed when she saw what the men were staring at. Snakes. It looked like hundreds of them, knotted like a ball of yarn all around the engine.'

"The rain washed them out of the ground," Mr. Ingram said. "They seeking higher ground."

"It was an awful thing to see, like ropes that tie themselves, then forget how they did it and can't undo it.  It looked like a baseball when you peel the skin off of it and underneath are all those strands circling into a big knot.  These were not matching snakes.  They were every variety, rattler, rat, racer, black, garden, coral, corn, cottonmouth, any kind you could think of.  Harmless and harmful joining forces."

"Jimmy had run to his yard and looked under the hood of their sideways car and shouted, "There's snakes under here too."  We went to see, yet, snakes, but not as many.  Like people at a sideshow we went sloshing from automobile to automobile.  Every engine made people scream.  Every engine was strangled with snakes."

We know that this is an older, wiser consciousness looking back because there are such paragraphs as this:

"This made Mother laugh. She laughed like you get a lawn mower started, just a couple of sputters at first, but then one of those sputters catches, fires up, and soon the motor is roaring. That was how mother got started laughing -- Jewel Langmont too. It was like they went crazy laughing, couldn't hardly breathe, gasping for air like a couple of fish, slapping their hands on the table top... It would be years before I understood the way laughing substituted for crying when women were being watched."

Books fail to reach their potential readership for a number of reasons.  Sometimes the first printings are simply too small to reach a tipping point of influential readers.  Sometimes the book is marketed to the wrong set of readers.

The decision was made to market As Hot As It Was You Ought To Thank Me to a YA audience--at least that is the section of the bookstore where the first edition was shelved.  And they published it as a trade paperback rather than as a first edition hardcover, which usually means that they don't take the book too seriously.

But the publishers did some good things to promote the book as well.  Previous to its publication, the novel was well reviewed and well blurbed.  At the rear of the book, the publishers placed a useful Reader's Guide and some essays by the author including a splendidly annotated list of the author's own reading.  She also told how much of this book is autobiographical.

I'm not sure who chose the cover picture and the title, a line from the book, but surely there were hundreds of more fitting pictures available and there are certainly many lines in the novel which would fit better and probably sell better as well.  Sometimes it is the little things that keep a novel from reaching its tipping point.

This is not a YA novel, but an adult fable, the snakes being symbolic of the rise of desire, the quicksand Fall, and the awareness of adult denial and rationalization.  The epigraph is from Nietzsche: "The lie is a condition of life."  The protagonist herself muses, ""Maybe all the truth really was, was everybody agreeing on something, like saying it enough made it so."

The atmosphere is noir and understated.  The absence of the Father (with a capital F) is the yearning ache that carries the novel.  At the end, the protagonist tells us, "Sometimes the missing part is the glue that holds everything else together."

Even that would have made a more fitting title.

To see today's other entries in the Forgotten Book Friday series, go to Todd Mason's website, at this link.

1 comment: