“Come Landfall: A Novel”
Author: Roy Hoffman
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Price: $29.95 (Cloth)
The novels of Roy Hoffman seem to flow from two sources.
First, as a writer for the “Mobile Press-Register,” Hoffman wrote scores of stories, profiling the citizens of the city. Character sketches of interesting though not conventionally important people were a specialty. In doing this work he of course came to realize more fully than most how multi-ethnic the population of Alabama actually is.
Second, is the history of his own family, Jewish immigrants from Romania who, like many new Americans—Germans, Greeks, Lebanese, Syrians, Italians—operated a small business in Mobile. Hoffman knew from family lore and first-hand observation that Alabama was not, in spite of the obscenity of Jim Crow and the glories of the civil rights movement, a study in black and white.
In his first novel, “Almost Family,” Hoffman does indeed cover that ground, the relationship between a Jewish family and a black family during the tense years of demonstrations. This novel won the Lillian Smith Award for its contribution to race relations in America.
But in his second novel, “Chicken Dreaming Corn,” Hoffman told the family story of his Romanian grandfather and the other newcomers on Dauphin Street. And now in “Come Landfall,” there is a further broadening and exploration.
This ambitious novel opens one year after 9/11, in 2012, and weaves the stories of three generations and three wars—the Second, the Vietnam Conflict and the First Gulf. Hoffman demonstrates through three convincing female characters the effect of those wars on the women who must cope with varieties of loss.
In one thread, we learn the story of Mariana, now 83 years old, whose mind wanders sometimes to 1941 when her young Jewish husband went off to the Pacific and was lost in the vile POW camps of Bataan.
We also watch her granddaughter Angela fall in love with Frank Semmes , a patriotic young enlisted man, a “weather warrior” studying meteorology in the Air Force, and eager to get into the action in Iraq.
Angela is slow, reluctant, to love Frank. Her own father returned from Vietnam in 1969, bitter and disillusioned with “patriotism” and religion. He received no parades, was called “baby killer” and became an anti-war activist, more likely to burn a flag than wave it.
In contrast, Frank’s father is a preacher and Frank, gung-ho military, is also born-again, a product of Kentucky Faith College. Angela and Frank have some adjusting to do.
The third woman in this saga is Cam Nguyen. She and her father escaped Vietnam as boat people. He is now a shrimper and they are devout Buddhists. She prays for guidance from the Bodhisattva Quan Am.
Cam Nguyen will need help: a bright but innocent girl, she is easily tricked and seduced by all-American local cop Joe Donahue, whose intentions, the reader soon sees, are impure.
Hoffman set this story in Biloxi rather than Mobile or Bayou la Batre for several good novelistic reasons.
In Biloxi he can show even more clearly the mixed state of cultural and religious affairs in the Deep South: the Buddhist shrine next to the shrine for the Virgin Mary, the Cotton Gin Casino down the road from Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’ home, which itself is next door to the Nana’s nursing home, Coastal Arms. And, throughout the novel, out in the Gulf, gathering force, is Katrina, which will, the reader knows, make landfall.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”