Coming of Age at the Y

Oct 6, 2008

Cobb's novels since this first one have been either serious or, if comedies, dark ones, whereas Coming of Age at the Y is an effervescent, bubbly pleasure.

The publication of a first novel is, without doubt, a great thrill for a young writer. Ah, the hope, the anticipation. Will the book be well received, win prizes, make the author rich and famous? Usually not. But that first novel can serve as what Walter Mosley has called "the author's thick calling card," getting him established, getting him a job or tenure or a residency. It is the beginning of a career.

But where the first publication of a novel is thrilling, the re-publication is gratifying. Time has passed. There have been other books. A reputation has been established and now a press wants to give that early work another chance. So it is with William Cobb's Coming of Age at the Y, first published by Portals Press in Tuscaloosa in 1984. Since then Cobb has published a collection of stories and four more novels, the best of which is the civil rights novel A Walk Through Fire (1992 ).

Cobb's novels since this first one have been either serious or, if comedies, dark ones, whereas Coming of Age at the Y is an effervescent, bubbly pleasure.

The novel begins with oldest comic device in American literature: the country bumpkin, in this case female, so technically a bumpkinette, comes to the big city.

This fictional virginal innocent is Delores Lovelady, of Durango, east Tennessee, population 10,491. Delores has been chosen as a finalist in the Miss Channel Thirteen contest and takes the Greyhound to Nashville, where she will live in the YWCA, compete in the beauty and talent pageant, and begin her life.

It's pretty soon clear that she is not extraordinarily beautiful and that she is so lacking in talent she simply recites the tired Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem "How Do I Love Thee." No one seems to notice. Surprisingly, she wins.

The reader and Delores soon meet the multimillionaire John Baldwin Skates, the owner of Channel Thirteen and many other enterprises. Skates physically resembles William F. Buckley but reminds this reader of Ted Turner. Skates seems to be using the contest and other ploys to supply himself with female victims, and Delores looks helpless, but the pleasure in the novel is watching the na?ve country girl exercise her own kind of guile. Oh, she is deflowered all right, but the power of her innocence is greater than the power of Skates' depravity and he had not counted on the power of LOVE. Like Dreiser's Carrie Meeber in Sister Carrie, Delores is a survivor and in her way, triumphant.

Set in the sexually rambunctious seventies, this novel captures the tone of Nashville, where Cobb was a writing student at Vanderbilt. Although this is not a "country music" novel, the music industry is the backdrop to everything and some of the minor characters are music city hopefuls like Slim Genes, whom Skates sends to woo Delores in his place, when he thinks he is done with her. The action moves from the Y, which is almost entirely inhabited by odd old ladies, to the bars and clubs of Nashville. Delores makes friends with the much more sophisticated Penelope, who introduces her to alcohol and marijuana. Those readers who were in places like Nashville in the seventies?and who can remember it?will become a little nostalgic. There was a lot of action in those years, true, but it was finally so very innocent, at least by later standards.

Coming of Age at the Y is everything I think a first novel should be. It is limited in scope, both in space and time, with only a few characters, all well-drawn. The novel has pace, and is comic and light-hearted throughout. This is a novel that gives pleasure and deserves another chance for a wide readership.