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Undertow

Originally published in The New Southern Fugitives.

 

Jesse and Ricky Few camped in front of the TV watching, “Let’s Make a Deal.

“I bet Monty is doing Carol,” Ricky said, reclining on the couch.

“Shhhh,” Jesse said, unable to conceive the idea of “doing Carol” and anxious to see if Monty Hall, the folksy game-show host, could persuade the lady dressed as a duck to trade her new living room suite for what the long-legged Carol Merrill had hidden behind door number one.

The two brothers had been invited by their childless aunt and uncle to spend a month with them at their beach house near Jacksonville, Florida. Earlier in the week, they had watched Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon, and Aunt Franny cried tears of pride. Ricky and Jesse giggled at her. This afternoon Aunt Franny was in the living room on the phone. According to their aunt, Uncle Archie was “off buying some old dairy” near Orlando. For lunch, she’d departed from her usual pressed ham or tuna salad and made each of them their favorite sandwiches—sardines, bacon, and peanut butter for Ricky and a PBJ with no crust for Jesse. They barely noticed this treat, so absorbed in the show.

“Shhhh, yourself, turd face,” Ricky said, extending the second knuckle of his middle finger and frog-punching Jesse.

“Ouch,” Jesse said, holding his arm. “You’re King Zitpoppalotta, not me.”

Scrambling to his feet, Jesse knocked over the end table, spreading magazines across the floor.

Ricky was an undersized sixteen-year-old whose face made for a fertile field of red acne blooms. He wore his curly black hair down to his shoulders and finished off his budding hippy look with a sparse mustache and sideburns. Jesse was a prepubescent ten-year-old. His sharp nose and hazel eyes favored his mother and grandfather. Jesse spent his summer vacation humoring Ricky as much as possible, to prevent him from turning to little brother torture for amusement.

“What are you boys doing in here?” Aunt Franny said, entering the den. Short and compact, their aunt did herself no favors with her copper-red pixie cut and lime-green mini-dress, making her look like one of Santa’s elves in the offseason.

“Nothing,” Ricky said. “Jesse had some fit because he’s in love with Monty.”

“No, you—”

“Stop spazzin’ and pick it up,” Ricky said. “Don’t make me call Momma.”

Jesse righted the table and restacked the magazines.

“Why don’t you turn that thing off?” Aunt Franny commanded, soft but firm

“Yes, ma’am,” Ricky said, kicking Jesse in the back of the leg. “Turn it off.”

“You need to go enjoy the ocean … those rafts Archie got you,” Aunt Franny said. “There’s some ladies coming to the house shortly for bridge. Y’all go put on your suits.”

~ ~

As they prepared to head out the sliding glass door to the beach, Aunt Franny gave them their final instructions.

“You two stay together. Don’t go in the water alone.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they said in chorus.

“Y’all can walk down to the Beach Club, but don’t get separated.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Don’t come back until dinner time. No sneaking back in with sandy feet to plop down in front of that idiot box. Meet some of those young girls. I’m sure they’d love you cute Georgia peaches.”

They stared at the floor and nodded their heads in agreement.

“Scoot, so I can set up my card table.”

The brothers walked out to the patio into the peak of the afternoon heat, only the ocean breeze providing some respite from the intense sunshine.

“Grab the rafts there, Tumbo,” Ricky said. “I’ll get the towels.”

Jesse pulled the two blue canvas rafts by the cords, walking toward the beach path ahead of Ricky.

“Not so fast,” Ricky shouted.

Jesse stopped, waiting for his brother.

“Take these.” Ricky threw the towels at Jesse and ran ahead.

“Ricky Retardo,” Jesse screamed, though not even the seagulls took notice. Trekking over the sand dunes, he saw his brother on the narrow high tide beach.

“Geez, you’re a slow one,” Ricky said.

Jesse slung the rafts down and threw the towels on top.

“I’m splitting to the club for a little sugar, sugar.” Ricky rocked his pelvis. “You guard the stuff.”

“But Aunt—”

“Wonk, wonk, I don’t want some square kid hanging around.”

“We’re—”

“I’ll repeat it for you, mommy’s boy. You’re picking up seashells for your boyfriend.” Ricky put his hands on his little brother’s shoulders and pushed him to the ground.  “Just don’t drown, or I’ll kill you if you do.”

Jesse planted himself behind the wall of seaweed, broken reeds, and trash that marked the high-water level and had a brackish smell of the sea and dead fish. Finding a small piece of smooth glass, he began building a fort until sand filled his bathing suit.

He had to go to the bathroom, but he couldn’t walk back up to the house or go in the sand dunes. Floating out on the raft was a possibility, but the sight of the coarse canvas made his belly twinge after he had rubbed it raw riding the big breakers last weekend. His only choice would be to wade out into the water.

The slate gray waves proved broken and choppy. Jesse jumped over the first set. Not wanting to get his hair wet on the off chance that Ricky might figure out he’d been in the water, he went out far enough out to squat down up to his neck. His warm pee flowed into the cold water around him. A wave crashed in front of him, foamy water came rushing for him. He dove under to escape. When he came up, he realized his hair was wet, but he didn’t care. “Surfin’ USA” filled his head.

Another wave came toward him, and he body-surfed to the beach. Uncle Archie had taught them how to catch waves; Jesse pictured his uncle’s thick hairy forearms with the faded anchor tattoos spearing through the water. Jesse was much better than Ricky, who didn’t like putting his face underwater. He caught a couple more and decided to venture out to the bigger waves.

A crab nipped at his big toe. He shrieked. Bouncing off the bottom with his other foot, the undercurrent from shore carried him past the creature. He took one more step then another, knowing that if his feet could touch he was alright. But with his next move, the riptide pulled him off the edge of the sandbar and into deeper water. He went under, desperately trying to feel for the bottom.

Jesse was on the surface again, treading water, when a wave broke on top of him, smacking him down into the darkness. Bicycling his feet in panic, he battled waves and the invisible force of the undertow. His heart beat faster. His stomach tightened. He kicked at nothing.

He came back up for the second time. Another wave pounded him into the deep, his lungs straining for air. Gasping, he forced himself up, greeted with a torrent of salt water filling his mouth, choking him, and driving him down once more.

Fighting to the top again, he was determined to find Ricky and yell at him for leaving him alone. A wave peeled off, gradually, and he mustered a couple of strokes, timing the break, allowing it to carry him to shore.

Struggling to his feet, he looked back at the ocean, coughing hard enough to vomit a little. He sobbed, racing up the dunes toward the house, not feeling the sandspurs. He disregarded his aunt’s admonition, deciding that almost drowning trumped ladies and their bridge.

The sliding glass door was locked, and the curtains were drawn, so he ran around to the garage side door. His pursuit of sympathy slowed only as he saw the red MGB convertible parked in the garage where his uncle’s silver Mercedes-Benz should have been.

“Aunt Franny, I’m sorry,” Jesse called out, pausing to wipe his feet.

He limped toward the living room where she’d intended to set up the card table. There was no table, no ladies, and no bridge game, only two empty wine glasses and “Aquarius” playing on the console stereo. Jesse heard a bump come from the back of the house, and he walked toward his aunt and uncle’s bedroom. Hearing a faint cry, he peeked into their room.

“Ahhhh … Uhhh.”

“Aunt Franny?” he whispered.

More groans came from the bathroom. Guessing she might have fallen in the shower, he inched the door open, detecting a strange voice with an English accent like John Steed, the hero from The Avengers TV series.

“You’re a naughty bird,” said the Steed voice.

“Oh, yeah,” his aunt screamed.

The red MGB stranger growled. It echoed off the tile. The steam filtered away, and Jesse saw his aunt’s breasts pressed against the shower door, peering at him like angry clown eyes. Jesse ran back down to the beach.

Waiting on the raft for Ricky, he covered his head with a towel and focused on figuring out why Monty would ever want to punish poor Carol that way.

 

Journey to The Big House

Originally posted in The New Southern Fugitives.

Southern Rock’s Graceland

Off a busy street in downtown Macon, GA sits a typical English Tudor-style house with cream white stucco and brown wood trim; however, if you drove past the big house at 2321 Vineville Avenue in the early 70’s, the inhabitants were far from conventional. From 1970 to 1973, it was the communal home of The Allman Brothers Band, one of the founders of Southern Rock. According to The Big House museum, the house was rented by Linda Oakley, bassist Berry Oakley’s wife, and along with their daughter, they shared the home with Duane Allman, his girlfriend and their daughter, and Gregg Allman, who was dating Berry sister’s at the time. When not touring, the house became a refuge for the band, roadies, friends, and families; an offbeat shelter to hang out, share meals, and jam. Today, it serves as a mecca for those wishing to revive the spirit of the band’s early success. If Elvis’s Graceland attracts visitors wishing to recall a time of innocence and the tragic legend of the King of Rock n’ Roll, then the Brother’s Big House summons a return to a time when love was everywhere. Each attraction is symbolic of a memorable time in southern history and presents an interesting dichotomy.

The contrast between Graceland and The Big House couldn’t be greater, and a significant part of the difference is due to Presley’s level of fame. Elvis was (or is) Elvis. More people watched his television special, “Elvis—Aloha from Hawaii,” than watched Neil Armstrong’s first walk on the moon. He sold one billion records. The Allman Brothers Band were long-haired good ole boys who enjoyed drinking mushroom tea. There are also obvious physical differences between the two homes.
At Graceland, a sprawling gated driveway leads to a classic colonial brick home sitting far back from the road on a knoll. The matching pairs of imposing white columns contribute an unmistakable regal quality. Elvis and his family had come a long way from a shotgun shack in Tupelo, MS. When the Allman Brothers Band lived at The Big House, the property’s current Tudor-style charm wasn’t as obvious. The appeal of the home required a deeper look into the delightful details of outdoor gardens and high ceilings with fireplaces throughout. Elvis had his infamous Jungle room, his basement TV room, and his backyard racquetball building. The Allman Brothers had a large upstairs sunporch where they drank their electric tea, smoked from their hookah, and made their music. The Graceland attraction has a half-dozen gifts shops, three or four levels of tour packages, and has now opened a new 450-room hotel, The Guest House, which promises well-to-do visitors the royal treatment. Graceland is controlled by Elvis Presley Enterprises. The Big House is staffed by volunteers. Yet despite the deep distinctions in taste, era, and intention, there are also stirring similarities.

Before they became tourist destinations, each was family homes and offered their road-weary occupants precious sanctuary. Graceland allowed Elvis to reunite his mother and father, and take in his maternal grandmother. It’s also where he started his marriage with Priscilla, and the celebrated the birth of Lisa Marie, his only child. Likewise, the Vineville house was filled with children and was the center of the brotherhood that connected the original Allman Brothers lineup. Each was inner sanctums meant to be shared with family and close friends. Unfortunately, a visit to both Graceland and The Big House also invoke painful memories of their inhabitants’ lamentable history.

By the time of his death, Graceland had become the King’s gilded mansion-prison. Holed up with the Memphis Mafia, his cadre of enablers and gofers, Elvis was detached from reality, floating in an illicit potion of uppers and downers. There was no one there to save him from himself. The grim truth didn’t reveal itself into the ballooned icon keeled over and died in the bathroom. Equally as mournful is the story of Duane Allman’s and Berry Oakley’s last days at The Big House. It’s widely reported that Duane and Berry contended with addiction to heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. Shameless drug abuse is the 1960’s ignominious legacy, as overdosing was dreadfully fashionable. A year apart, the band members perished in motorcycles accidents only blocks from their refuge. Passing at such a young age, each star is cast in a perpetual play of what-ifs. To never grow old is the blessing and the curse of those who die young.

It’s simple to view The Big House as the antithesis of Graceland. Visitors to Elvis’s mansion are saps desperate to recreate a time that has long past and those who make the journey to Macon’s Big House are aging stoners hoping to breathe hope into a failed moment. What requires effort is to see the connection. At the core of each are the love of music, the love of friendships, and the love of family. When we focus on the love, we feel it everywhere.

Maya Angelou on “The Mike Douglas Show”

Originally published in The New Southern Fugitives.

Miss Lions, my third-grade teacher, wore mini-skirts and white boots up to her knees. On Wednesday afternoons, she combined classes with Miss Freeman, doubling the tartan mini-skirts and shiny go-go boots. After we saw the science program on TV, they’d let us watch The Mike Douglas Show until the final bell rang while they tittered back and forth in the doorway.

There was Maya Angelou on The Mike Douglas Show sitting next to Mike and reading a story about her grandmother praying during cotton picking season. I don’t know where Mike’s mind was with his burnt-orange leisure suit and polyester smile, but Maya Angelou reminded me of Angela Davis. J. Edgar Hoover said Angela Davis was a radical and put her on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. Granny said Angela Davis’s giant Afro spooked her to no end. I could envision it reaching past the nightly news and into my living room. Her sullen scowl turning into a haunting smile as her hair choked the life from Granny and me. Angela Davis scared me. Maya Angelou frightened me, too.

Hoping I’d get a bosomy hug, I told Miss Lions I was frightened. But, I got no squeeze, just a suppressed laugh, so then I told her everything else I thought Granny would say if she saw Maya Angelou on The Mike Douglas Show. Miss Freeman stopped giggling. Miss Lions snatched me by the collar and dragged me to see Mr. Foster.

Now, Granny adored Mr. Foster. After church on Sundays, she would slip off her cream white gloves and shake his hand, delicate and slow, not worried about her arthritis. Telling me later how perfect a match he’d be for my Momma, both being so tall and all.

Mr. Foster’s office was dark and cold. The whirr of his window unit smothered the clicking of the typewriters beyond the shut door. His shovelhead was shrouded in the dim afternoon light, but I could detect his crisp, peppery after-shave. Granny said Mr. Foster was a man’s man.

Replaying it, Mr. Foster’s voice was lifeless as he told me to move my raggedy white-trash ass off from his goddamn chair and get over behind his desk. The coarseness of the leather, the burning tear, and his satisfied grunt always return.

Maya Angelou died at eighty-five. Granny died at eighty-five, too, crumpled and twisted like a greasy paper napkin, unable to wipe her own ass, and without a fucking clue about why the caged bird sings.

Visual Arts: Refuge in Ruins

Originally published in The New Southern Fugitives.

For a man’s home is his castle, and each man’s home is the safest refuge.”

Sir Edward Coke

A flood of development swamped us with subdivision upon subdivision. There were countless Estates, Manors, Preserves, Groves, Lakes, Streams, Pines, Oaks, Pointes, Stations and Bridges upon Ridges.

The streets in these neighborhoods were teeming with abandoned foreclosures, weed covered lawns and empty dirty windows staring out at the curb with dull lifeless eyes.

When change arrived it was too late for many to break through the attic ceiling to get to the roof for financial safety.

The surviving families still thumbed through their mail-order catalogs and the Sunday circulars, tingling at the slick ads. Later they hid their unopened mail further under the daily clutter, piling up higher and higher on the counter.

Why the New Southern Fugitives

Originally published in The New Southern Fugitives. 

A New Moment

Karma, southern fried or not, is freedom, not fate. What we reap and what we sow is not determined by unavoidable fortune but by the choices we make. Considering that Donald Davidson and his fellow Fugitive scholars, critics, and poets were in their mid-seventies or eighties during the Summer of Love, it’s unlikely they dropped LSD and listened to John Lennon’s “Instant Karma.” Nashville wasn’t Berkeley. They may have discussed prevenient grace but not the cosmic principle of rewards and punishments following us from one human incarnation to another. Yet they made a clear choice at a critical moment during the early 20th century. Their ardent repudiation of southerner’s disproportionate faith in consumerism and their caution regarding excessive industrialization are still valid in the early 21st century.

The original Fugitives, the literary group centered around Vanderbilt University, believed in the importance of art and intellect. Their coalition toggled between a mystical and a pragmatic stance on the our society faced in the 1920’s and 30’s. Taken in today’s context, their views on slavery could be considered pitiful rationales, but at the time, their opinions on race, gender, privilege, and justice were contrary to The Lost Cause movement and the white overseers of capital—the new rich of post-Reconstruction but the old money of today. As citizens, we must question the establishment. That’s the mission of The New Southern Fugitives, our new weekly zine.

We intend to offer our subscribers fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and visual arts that provokes the reader. Each week, we’ll publish a variety of short stories, including flash fiction, personal essays, book reviews, poems, and photographs that challenge our comfortable perspective of the south.  By focusing on briefer works, we hope to offer more diversity, reach a broader audience, and accelerate our ability to cultivate the voice of the New Millennium. Also, by publishing in a Web-based format only, we’re utilizing interconnected electronic communications as tools that stir change rather than overwhelming chatter.

A critical part of our success is our subscribers and authors. We are seeking writers. That’s why we’ve attended book festivals throughout the southeast and advertised in writing publications. That’s how we promote the growth of new voices. We don’t charge a reading fee, and unlike other zines, we pay upon publication. We couldn’t make the path to a broader audience any more amicable. Please send us your work and encourage your friends to do the same.

Being part of the Southern Fried Karma family, we present ourselves with a similar appearance: red to mark a promising venture, yellow to activate the mind, blue the most common earth tone our Creator used to color the sky, the rivers, and the oceans. As in all our enterprises, Shiva’s We aspire to create a means that allows us to glimpse each other as fellow souls, born in the same manner and traveling to the same destination. By promoting our diversity, we’re striving to illustrate our commonality. Join as a witness to the journey.

Marble Tar-Babies

Inheriting Civil War Stuff

In Joel Chandler Harris’s “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story,” the turpentine and tar stick figure stays still and silent throughout the two-page short story. Yet, it’s the Tar-Baby’s refrain from polite speech that draws the ire of Brer Rabbit while Brer Fox lays low in the bushes. The hundreds of Confederate monuments scattered around America are equally muted and infuriating. Standing watch in front of courthouse squares and manicured green spaces, these sculpted monuments have further divided a fractured country. Erected generations ago by windbag politicians and the doting matrons that formed United Daughters of the Confederacy, these marble tar-babies have ensnared passersby but by their nature are unable to let them loose. The primary solvent is an honest examination of the gilded accounts that have been handed down from our predecessors.

At the centennial of the Civil War in 1961, Robert Penn Warren, the 1946 Pulitzer Prize winner for All the King’s Men, published The Legacy of the Civil War. His 108-page essay was subtitled a Meditation on the Centennial and dissects the war’s “influence on our economy, our social institutions, our domestic politics and foreign policy, our philosophy and our psychology.” The war, Warren asserts, was fought to salvage the Union, the respect for which still beat “deep in many a Confederate breast” and the abolishment of slavery. These are each critical ideas to establish and paramount in placing the war in perspective.

America won the Civil War.

Not the Yankees.

Not the North.

The United States of America.

The same Army that helped win two World Wars and protects us today defeated an enemy intent on destroying the country that we honor before the kick-off of every football game from pee-wees to professionals, and in this victory, we vanquished a heathen system hell-bent on brutalizing our fellow human beings for their own economic gain. On these two facts, there is no room for honest debate.

Warren acknowledges that the war restored the Union and emancipated the slaves, yet “it did little or nothing to abolish racism.” Leaving us with a public discussion on how we free ourselves from the viscous legacy that in our imperious indignation we’ve collectively punched, kicked, and head-butted until we’ve mired ourselves in a befuddling trap.

A recent New York Times article, “Aging Parents with Lots of Stuff, and Children Who Don’t Want It,” focused on the issue of children dealing with their parents’ “competitive accumulation of material goods.” Like reluctant offspring trying to diplomatically tell their mothers they don’t want her Lenox china, Southerners have inherited Confederate memorials in public spaces that wouldn’t be erected today. Unfortunately, a hundred Jefferson Davis statues can’t be unloaded at an estate sale, and it fails to address the core of the dilemma:

Racism.

Not merely subtle colorism, institutional discrimination, or overt bigotry. It’s hate. It’s white supremacy. It’s racial terrorism.

Patrick Phillips’s Blood at the Root provides a chilling account of racial terrorism’s demonic evolution. A former resident of Forsyth County, Georgia, now a sprawling Metro Atlanta suburb, Phillips’s goal was to understand “the people of my home” and “to trace the origins of the ‘whites only’ world they fought so desperately to preserve.” From the forced removal of the indigenous Cherokee to the 1912 merciless purging of all blacks from the county to the 1987 attack on the Brotherhood March, Phillips details the county’s brutal and shameful heritage. It’s the resurfacing of this vitriol hatred in north Charleston and Charlottesville that all Americans should unite against.

These perplexing heirlooms can’t be dealt with by sharing cranky white dude memes or sneaking cranes in at midnight. Dr. Wayne Dyer, a renowned self-development author and speaker, said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” The beauty of this is that it works for statues and people.

At the base of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest chalet in the Austrian Alps is a museum. Nearly all vestiges of der Fuhrer have been stripped from the site to discourage neo-Nazis pilgrims. The various displays are designed for Germans to learn their recent history and to teach us all an invaluable lesson on the menace of a narcissistic cult gone mad. Dynamiting the face of Stone Mountain is problematic, but there’s merit to the establishment of a southern museum of African-American History and Culture at the site of the largest Confederate memorial in the world.

The little boy to whom “the (tar-baby) story had been told” asked Uncle Remus, “Did the Fox eat the Rabbit?”  Wise old Uncle Remus doesn’t answer the question conclusively, which is the tale’s resonant appeal. The resolution requires a willingness to turn away from what appears to separate us towards what binds us together. We must set aside our fears for the sake of hope. Compassion must be our legacy.

Beach Reads for Sand Haters

A Pair of Dark Southern Tales to Brighten Your Vacay 

A Google search of “Summer Reads 2017” delivers millions of results. Every media outlet and reading resource from Southern Living magazine to the Hahira Public Library has an opinion about what the literary society should read during vacation. You’ve got to be seen with the “It” book of 2017 — a “fresh fun departure” about an island or a forlorn beach house — or else your beach buddies may think you’re as unfashionable as cargo jean shorts or dress socks with sandals. But, we all don’t have to traipse after the cool crowd like vacationing lemmings to the pool bar. If you want to shut off your incessant workplace minds and escape but not to a place too cozy, then Thomas Mullen and Donald Ray Pollock have the tales your eerie imagination may crave.

For over a decade, Thomas Mullen, an Atlantan, has been recognized for his mesmerizing fiction. His 2006 debut, The Last Town on Earth, was named Best Debut Novel by USA Today and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction. In Darktown, he puts all those accolades in jeopardy by delving into the post-WWII civil rights history of his hometown before Atlanta was dubbed the “City too busy to hate,” but credit Mullen the cleverness for weaving his revealing civics lesson into a satisfying literary thriller. Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith are two of the first black officers hired by the Atlanta Police Department after the police chief succumbed to pressure from the mayor and the business community eager to advance Atlanta’s case as the capital of the New South. Distrusted by their peers and the community they’ve sworn to protect and serve, the rookie policemen are drawn into a risky unofficial investigation when an attractive young black woman is found dead in a car last seen driven by a shifty white man.

The story has all the skillful twists and elements of a thriller: a psychopathic bigoted villain, a progressive white ally who must face his own prejudices, and a supporting underbelly of thugs, crooked ex-cops, and shady politicians. There’s a stiff plot point-to-plot point feel about the story as if Mullen had a giant wall of index cards and had to make sure that every story thread was trimmed square. The novel also lacks the same rebellious tenor of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers. Yet, Mullen’s aim is ambitious — to entertain and enlighten — and he accomplishes both. Within the intriguing tale is an appropriate message about how Southerners should unflinchingly engage in their community to best resolve today’s race struggles.

Donald Ray Pollock’s latest book, The Heavenly Table, is also historical fiction set in the South, but like the author himself, it originates from an uncommon place. Knockemstiff, Ohio has to be as far from the beach as a vacationer could get, but that’s Pollock’s hometown and his voice. Pollock’s writing career is legend. Nearing mid-life, he quit drinking, left his steady union job as a laborer at the paper mill, and went to Ohio State to get his MFA. If that wasn’t incredible enough, he transcribed by hand fifty-plus of his favorite author’s novels to hone his craft. That’s using a whetstone to sharpen your writing tools. Heavenly Table has the same Gothic tone as his acclaimed debut novel, The Devil All the Time, while telling a more expansive story.

Set on a farm along the border of Georgia and Alabama in 1917, The Heavenly Table tells of the unrewarding life of the Jewett family. After their father’s death, the three Jewett brothers venture off on horseback to plunder and murder their way to wealth and fame. On an author’s panel at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in 2016, Pollock disclosed that the Jewetts were such dynamic characters that they “took over the book.” Further, what makes Pollock’s novel fascinating is the convergence of the Jewetts and Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler, opposite yet equally troubled characters eking out a destitute existence in southern Ohio, ignorant of the Jewetts’ happenstance course for their downtrodden family farm. However, Pollock’s flair for multiple points of view and settings is also the novel’s flaw. There’s a myriad of locations and characters weaving in and out of the plot, and Pollock shifts time to and fro, making the story difficult to follow. But, he does it so well that it’s well-worth the narrative sidetracking.

Despite the bleak story line of both, there’s an aliveness to the novels, a hopeful force that operates in them. As in our real everyday worlds, away from placid shorelines, mountain vistas, and bucolic lake views, this positive power faces adversity and pessimism. In Darktown and Heavenly Table, Mullen and Pollock create more than colorful characters and engaging plots. They illustrate the value of faith in overcoming self-doubt, fear, and hatred, which is a noble practice whether you’re on the beach or not. With strong belief and a trusty water hose, you will get the sand out of your bathing suit.