By T.R. Pearson
(Viking, 255 pp., $24.95)
Offering another odd, ambling exploration of life in the small-town South, Virginia author T.R. Pearson tests the limits of storytelling with his latest book, True Cross. Narrated by Paul Tatum, a shy accountant smitten with an elusive young woman named Maud, True Cross is a story of amorous obsession that’s at once suspenseful and satirical, gothic and comica mix of moods and styles that is, in the end, an unusual tribute to the art of storytelling itself.
Although it qualifies as a romantic mystery and contains a tidy little plot, True Cross still manages to contain multitudes. A writer who savors getting sidetracked, Pearson isn’t afraid to follow whatever tangents strike his fancy, and indeed, the main narrative line of his new book is so aswim in digression and dense detail that the reader, at times, has trouble keeping up. True Cross is built around a simple quest, but it quickly blossoms into a catalog of idiosyncratic characters, rural trivia and everyday incidents in the life of the narrator.
Enlisting the help of his neighbor, a fix-it man named Stoney, Paul pursues Maud Hooper in hopes of luring her away from her ornery husband. Meanwhile, he tries to shed the affections of his own annoying girlfriend, Mona. As novels go, all this sounds pretty straightforward but, True Cross being a tale by T. R. Pearson, events soon veer wildly off-course. In between Paul’s attempts to get to Maud, the reader is treated to thick expositions onamong many other thingsthe behavior of Paul’s mongrel pug and the nature of guinea hens. Pearson does move (slowly) from point A to point B, but the extraneous information he includes is so profuse, and the narration so circuitous, that the overall effect of the novel is one of accretion rather than progression.
Yet the author does have a design in mind. Despite the mountains of minutiae and Paul’s nearly free-associative style of storytelling, all is not as random as it first seems. Pearson’s intention here, as in previous novels like Polar, is to recreate the conditions of discourse as it occurs in his corner of the world. Taking pains to render accurately the kind of exchanges that take place between laconic, small-town localsthe sort of naturally taciturn rural folk who, when their stoic silences are finally broken, tend to embellish events and over-exercise the ears of their listenersPearson presents the novel in the style of a good, old-fashioned, extended yarn-spinning.
Thus, the rewinding and doubling back as we follow Paul on his quest. Afraid of generating rumors in his small community, he can’t ask anyone outright about Maud, whom he first spots in a sewing store, and so he turns to Stoney for information. Quiet and wise, Stoney drives a beat-up van and, most importantly, does repair work around Maud’s house, but he proves an unforthcoming informant. Paul’s chats with him send the narrative in unexpected directions because “as a partner in conversation, Stoney’s gift was for mulishness. He went where he wanted,” Paul explains. “He wouldn’t be led or guided or nudged or steered, so I was obliged to wait for Stoney to work his way back around to those Hoopers.”
The waiting takes a while. Along the way, we learn that Stoney bears a striking resemblance to St. George, the famous dragon-slayer, a fact that has inspired him, in the past, to acts of chivalry around town. In the end, with a little prodding from Paul, he tries to rescue Maud from her seemingly abusive husbanda plan that has catastrophic consequences.
As events unfold, it becomes clear that True Cross is more a literal exploration of the nature of communication than it is the story of Paul and his pursuit of Maud. Pearson uses plot not strictly for action, but as a premise for examining the delicacies of language, the degrees of meaning, the complex customs of verbal exchange unique to mountain people. (The word “well,” Paul observes, is “the back-hollow version of arrive-derci.”) Stretching the story to its utmostthe sidetracks and details included are dizzying in numberPearson has plenty of chances to showcase his own studied, ceremonious prose style. The novel is filled with antiquities of speech, medieval turns of phrase that might still have currency in his part of the world, but nevertheless sound odd to modern ears. Expressions like “have occasion” and “visit upon it” frequently come off as awkward rather than elegant.
As it happens, Paul Tatum is the cousin of Ray Tatum, a recurring character in Pearson’s work. Paul (who made an appearance in Pearson’s book Blue Ridge) is intelligent and reserved, more worldly than his neighbors but, despite the fulsomeness of his narration, he remains strangely indistinct at the novel’s end. “We Tatums have always been dull and steady,” he reveals at one point. “We plod and grind along as a rule.” Which pretty much describes the pace of True Cross. Thus, while the novel does have its moments of humor, Pearson’s insistence upon authenticity can be tedious, his indulgent digressions too often confusing to the readeran example of style executed at the expense of sense. True Cross is a true curiosity, a book to be marveled at but not necessarily enjoyed.
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