Mon October 6, 2008
Letter From Point Clear
Ellen Owen and her brother Morris were raised on Mobile Bay, on the promenade, just a few houses down the boardwalk from the Grand Hotel. When they were teenagers, their affluent family sent them north to New England, to school, and that was that.
By Don Noble
Ellen Owen and her brother Morris were raised on Mobile Bay, on the promenade, just a few houses down the boardwalk from the Grand Hotel. When they were teenagers, their affluent family sent them north to New England, to school, and that was that. They are now in their forties and have been ex-pats for over twenty years. Ellen is a minor poet, married with a 13-year-old son, Willie. Morris is still deeply in love with his spouse of 14 years, Richard. They all live in Massachusetts and summer in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod.
One day the letter from Point Clear comes. Their younger sister, Bonnie, who left a weak acting career in NYC to be with their dying father in the family home on the Bay, has not returned and is in fact, married, to a younger man, 25 years old, of no wealth or education or family, an evangelical, fundamentalist preacher whose first name is actually Pastor.
Morris, wry, witty, opinionated, irreverent, if not downright atheistic, and of course gay, is not pleased. Why has sister Bonnie sunk back into deepest Alabama? It will be hard to communicate, he jokes, because "they don't have e-mail in Alabama. The state legislature passed a bill banning the internet." "That's not true," replies Ellen. "Well, it very well could be true. Places don't stay as benighted as Alabama by accident, you know. You have to enact laws."
I was also amused at Morris' literary judgments. "He found... revolting what seemed to be a growing body of lightweight literature that portrayed the South as chock-full of characters who couldn't be more colorful if they tried, who never uttered a phrase that wasn't picturesque and who, despite the unmentionable crimes of their bigotries, were good-hearted folks through and through."
Amen to Morris as literary critic. Ellen and Morris decide they must return to Point Clear, if not to perform an actual intervention, at least to conduct an investigation. What has Bonnie done? Quickly they learn that Bonnie is pregnant, besotted with Pastor Pastor, and has already written a large check to his megachurch under construction, The Church of the Blessed Hunger, seventeen miles east of Point Clear, with a real theater, classrooms, activity rooms, and two basketball courts, side by side. "Whatever brings 'em in," says Pastor.
Instead of conducting an intervention, Morris becomes, as it were, the subject of one. Pastor, guided by the Holy Spirit, quickly organizes his Prayer Team to pray for Morris because, Pastor says, he is "struggling" with his homosexuality." "But Morris isn't struggling with homosexuality," says Bonnie, "You're struggling with it... I mean, you're struggling with his. You should be praying for yourself." Pastor nevertheless invites to dinner a young man he has saved from gayness, and the dialog at that dinner party, like all the dialog in this novel, is funny, crisp, witty as Noel Coward.
Most fiction writers struggle with dialog. McFarland's characters speak so wittily, so authentically, and differently from one another?a rare treat?that just reading this novel is like going to a play. I don't doubt there will be a play or a movie.
I should say that it is tempting to the reader, as it must have been to McFarland, to make Pastor a fool. But he is not. Pastor is sincere, intelligent, and capable. Before the novel ends, Pastor has had some kind of religious vision which it is impossible to mock, and although there is a lot of spirited spiritual debate, no real conclusions are reached.
McFarland is the author of five previous novels, most notably the best-seller Singing Boy, and I intend to have a look at those, too, hoping they are as intelligent and gracefully written as this one
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.