Don Noble
12:18 pm
Mon March 1, 2004

Slow Way Home

Slow Way Home is rough. It sometimes appears to be a less than final draft of a novel, especially in the final third. Perhaps there was pressure on Morris to publish while there was still word of mouth about A Place Called Wiregrass.

Slow Way Home

Michael Morris got his fiction writing career off to a good start in 2002 with his novel A Place Called Wiregrass, a story of courage in the face of cruel spouse abuse. That book was published in paperback by a little press called River Oak in Tulsa, Oklahoma, not exactly anybody?s idea of a literary center. But the book succeeded, partly through Morris?s own efforts.

Now we have Morris?s second novel, Slow Way Home (2003), with a new publisher, HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollins, but, alas, I do not believe it will move his career any farther down the road.

Slow Way Home is rough. It sometimes appears to be a less than final draft of a novel, especially in the final third. Perhaps there was pressure on Morris to publish while there was still word of mouth about A Place Called Wiregrass.

And it is a pity, because the premise, or as they might say in Hollywood, the concept, for this book is really quite good, and Morris is a writer with heart.

Brandon Willard is an eight-year-old boy in eastern North Carolina who is being raised by his mother, Sophie. Sophie is now living with Darrell, one in a long succession of men. Brandon, the narrator, tells us his mother has been married twice and has let four additional men into the house. Darrell is abusive. Sophie is an alcoholic and drug addict. She and Darrell abandon Brandon at a Greyhound station, and he will go to live with his grandparents, Nana and Poppy, on a farm outside of Raleigh.

This works out quite well. The old folks are kind and gentle, and there is even something of an extended family: Uncle Cecil, Aunt Lorraine, cousins Mac and Mary Madonna. These are simple, decent, rural people. Unfortunately, Sophie and Darrell don?t strike it rich in Canada, no surprise, and Sophie returns and demands custody back, Nana and Poppy fight this and lose, and then the best part of the novel begins.

The old folks illegally take Brandon and run away to Abbeville, Florida, on the Gulf in the Panhandle and there get jobs, make friends, and hide out, on the lam, with assumed names. This is the most interesting section of the novel, dealing as it does with parental rights and grandparental rights and some of the intricacies and stupidities of family and child custody law.

Through an odd but inevitable circumstance, the old folks are found and thrown into prison. For a long while Brandon lives with his mom, but of course she gets a new man, Tony the Drug Dealer. She becomes a kind of Fagin figure, forcing Brandon to aid her in her shoplifting capers. She is caught, and Brandon, who was Oliver Twist, becomes Pip of Great Expectations as he is taken in by a kindly, rich, old lady benefactor, Aunty Gina, who is also a powerful North Carolina state senator.

This all sounds better than it is. Brandon in Abbeville becomes a member of an interracial evangelical church?this element of the novel mirrors parts of Wiregrass?and on four separate occasions sees Jesus.

He doesn?t dream or hallucinate; Jesus appears, but it doesn?t seem to make any real difference. This metaphysical dimension, much like the North Carolina political element regarding Aunty Gina, is not properly integrated into the plot. In other places, the lessons are too explicit. One more rewrite would have done the job.

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