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Mon January 12, 2004
Willem is conscious of what he is doing and how he appears to others, but he can't stop himself. First he loses control of his utterances, much like a Tourette's Syndrome victim. He begins to babble, then rage, to yell at the top of his lungs.
By Don Noble
Melinda Haynes published her first novel, Mother of Pearl, in 1999 and became, briefly, an overnight celebrity and, probably, millionaire. Oprah chose Mother of Pearl for her book club, the book hit the best seller lists, and Haynes was established. Chalktown (2001) was her second and, I think, better novel. It is the story of a Southern hamlet in which many of the residents are too filled with shame to speak, so they write on chalkboards they have erected in their front yards. Chalktown did nothing critically or commercially. Now we have Willem's Field, published a few months ago and seemingly going nowhere. This is a pity because I think Willem's Field, set in Mississippi in 1975, is her best yet and deserves some readers.
This is an odd, but oddly funny novel. The title character, Willem Fremont, suffers from acute panic disorder. SURELY he is the first panic disorder protagonist in all of American fiction. In the first chapter, Willem, seventy years old, is having lunch in a diner in Texas when an attack develops. The seizure is described from the inside?Melinda Haynes herself suffers from panic disorder?and I was transfixed. Willem is conscious of what he is doing and how he appears to others, but he can't stop himself. First he loses control of his utterances, much like a Tourette's Syndrome victim. He begins to babble, then rage, to yell at the top of his lungs. He climbs up onto the table, scares the dickens out of the other customers, and is then thrown bodily out the door. Other times, he hears humming, he faints, he sees colors, and he becomes locked into repetitive, obsessive behaviors. It is terrible, but surprisingly very funny.
Willem is returning to Mississippi to try to get back the farm he had abandoned years ago. On this farm is a field, Willem's Field, and it too is like no other field you have read about. One does not walk onto this field of some size. One falls into it, if one is not careful, because it is a sinkhole fifty feet deep and more or less square.
The present owners of the farm are wonderfully odd, too. Eilene Till, the mother of two grown boys, Sonny and Bruno, really doesn't like them. Sonny is a 300-pound sloth, single and worthless. Bruno is a wounded Vietnam vet who can't or won't get on with his life. He sits all day long rereading old National Geographic magazines. "Eilene was chronically irritated, eternally frustrated, enormously weary of her boys. Like bad viruses they invaded her heart, wreaked havoc with her brain, stole the strength from her muscles . . . ." But she is a mother and cannot really admit this, so she punishes them in her own way. She pretends to be deaf. This gives her the right to shout at them constantly, even when they are standing near, AND enables her not to hear anything they say to her. These scenes are a riot, especially in the kitchen where she pretends to be absent-minded and burns their cornbread and scorches their lima beans on purpose. Any claims as to the universal human instinct for motherhood are dispelled in this novel.
Haynes also includes, in this perversely funny book, two peculiar love affairs. Bruno, married, falls in love with the woman selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners and Sonny marries a stripper/hooker. In addition, there is a very unusual burglary of a small-town jewelry store. Yes, there is a lot of sadness in this story, but it is also one of the funniest novels I have read in ages.
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.