May 10, 2004

It is not unusual for many fiction writers to set their first novels on campus or at least in the town of their artistic birth. Valerie Vogrin, has set her first novel, Shebang, on what I take to be 13th Street of Tuscaloosa, right up from Abernathy's Market.


It is not unusual for many fiction writers to set their first novels on campus or at least in the town of their artistic birth. A couple of years ago, Geoff Schmidt published the novel Write Your Heart Out: Advice from the Moon Winx Motel, set in Tuscaloosa, and now his friend and colleague from the MFA writer's program at UA, Valerie Vogrin, has set her first novel, Shebang, on what I take to be 13th Street, right up from Abernathy's Market.

Shebang is not, however, an academic novel, or at least only tangentially. The denizens of the English Department's Morgan Hall can breathe easy for a while longer, although that novel must one day come.

In Shebang, the protagonist, Fiona Sweetleaf, is 27 and an orphan. Her grandmother, Reed Sweetleaf, has died three years earlier, joy riding in a crop duster, and her mother, Ursula, and older sister, Easter, were killed "when a TV news copter crashed into the Amtrak train they had ridden over a thousand miles to die on."

This unlikely wreck left Easter's son, Hector, effectively an orphan (he has never met his father), so Aunt Fin, orphan, never married, is now raising her nephew.

It is a big house and a lonely one. Fin supports them with a catering business and tries to live a life, but not much is working. "Her three most recent couplings-the visiting boy next door, the UPS man, the piano tuner-had been short, shorter and shortest." She is presently entertaining a married graduate student, Ben, who comes over to watch sports on her TV and complain about his lack of progress on his dissertation, a study of acoustics in the ancient Greek theater.

The novel opens on April 18 and ends on August 22 of the same Tuscaloosa summer, but a good deal changes in that time. Ben fades out of the picture. His wife, Madeline, fades in.

Hector brings home Jordis, a pregnant teenager, and she moves in. Duncan, a mostly gay friend, gives oboe lessons in one of the empty rooms.

His student, Silvia, eight, an oboe prodigy, moves into the house, and so does Silvia's father, Graham, a painter of vegetables who seems to live on sprouts and the products of a juicer.

Graham and his juicer are a reproof of sorts to Fin, who is actually something of a gourmet cook and is even beyond the quiches, casseroles, cheesecakes, falafel, and baklava she provides as a caterer.

As the summer progresses, several more of Hector's friends move in, and, most importantly, Hector's biological father, with the appropriately ironic name of R.V., comes home.

From being an empty and silent house, Fin's place becomes virtually crammed with people. One might call them odd people, but really they are just people of many ages, several sexes, not so much in common except their steady, mostly unspoken desire to connect, to join the community of one another, to make what the Sweetleafs had lost through misadventure, that is: a family.

The reader knows the family is formed when Fin decides to make a cassoulet with a 5-lb. duckling, a dish which requires 25 steps and 2 whole days of work. At this point the novel veers pleasantly, towards Babette's Feast or Big Night.

Shebang is really Fin's story, her consciousness. She is passive about what happens, but "accepting" is another, better word for passive, and as her house, and more importantly, her porch, her spiritual center, fills with what look like and may in fact be well-meaning parasites, she adapts.

To readers who may have had their artistic metabolisms shaped by MTV, Pepsi commercials, or Schwartzenegger films, this novel may seem to move slowly. I prefer stately. Vogrin is a careful writer of graceful sentences. And in fact a lot does, in a sense, happen. People die. Others are born. Relationships end and new ones begin. Individuals find themselves and one another. Isn't that the drama, the action, that actually comprises real life?