Don Noble
9:20 am
Mon January 26, 2004

When the Finch Rises

In the year 2000 Jack Riggs was chosen in Nashville as one of the South's "Emerging New Voices," and now When the Finch Rises has been blurbed by Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Silas House, Fred Chappell, Lewis Nordan, and Clyde Edgerton. In a kind of imprimatur, Edgerton says, "Riggs's up-and-coming days are over. He's here." Well, I don't think so. Not yet.

When the Finch Rises

Once in a while the Southern Writers Club?there is actually no such thing?organizes itself as a membership committee and semi-officially inducts a new member. In the year 2000 Jack Riggs was chosen in Nashville as one of the South's "Emerging New Voices," and now When the Finch Rises has been blurbed by Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Silas House, Fred Chappell, Lewis Nordan, and Clyde Edgerton. In a kind of imprimatur, Edgerton says, "Riggs's up-and-coming days are over. He's here."

Well, I don't think so. Not yet.

When the Finch Rises is a strong debut novel, true. But it is not a very likeable novel. It is relentlessly painful and does not, in my opinion, leave the reader "not knowing whether to laugh or cry." I like to laugh?a lot?and I was never tempted in 238 depressing pages.

The story is set in eastern North Carolina in the early sixties. Raybert Williams lives on one side of the street in this wretched little mil town. His best friend, Palmer Conroy, lives on the other. Raybert's mother, Evelyn, is a bipolar paranoid schizophrenic who often goes off her meds, sometimes tarts herself up and drives crazily around town, sometimes engages in compulsive ironing, but usually falls into wild and baseless jealous rages at her husband.

Raybert's father is no less odd. A hapless alcoholic, he moves out of the house when his wife is "chasing her tail," as her mental illness is described, lives in the dry cleaning plant the family owns, and seems to arrange to be brutally beaten up by strangers in the alleys behind the plant.

After one such encounter, "he has a large gash below his right eye that was patched, the lid nearly swollen shut . . . ." The top third of his left ear has been bitten off. He does this regularly. On the other hand, he seems to have participated in a Negro lynching of an innocent black teenager. Perhaps he has himself beaten up out of guilt. He should find a better way.

Palmer, Ray's best friend, has a dead father and a vicious tramp of a mother, Inez, who has a violent live-in boyfriend, Edgar, who beats Palmer and surreptitiously takes pornographic Polaroids of Palmer's older sister, Cindy, the teenage tramp. What a mess.

As if all this weren't confusing enough, Palmer seems to be in love with Raybert, likes for them both to get nearly naked and sometimes kisses him. Are these boys gay? It's hard to tell, since they are only about eleven when the novel ends, and since Palmer runs away we never learn what really happened to him. Things don't look too bright for Ray either.

During this novel, history serves as a backdrop. Palmer enrolls in the second grade on the day President Kennedy is shot, November 22, 1963. Evelyn Williams has an episode on the day Robert Kennedy is killed: she has a ferocious crush on Bobby. But this cultural context is not integrated, and it is not what makes these people crazy. They were already crazy.

Both the boys are also mad for Evel Knievel, who is doing his motorcycle stunts during this period, but it doesn't seem to have any real symbolic value that he flies high and usually crashes, breaking lots of bones. He's no smarter than the boys who admire him.

The Finch of the title refers to the local river, which has been named for the flocks of beautiful birds that stop there on their migration, but when the Finch rises, people who live near the river are drowned to death.

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