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By Valerie Sayers,
a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

EAT, DRINK, AND BE FROM MISSISSIPPI

By Nanci Kincaid

Little, Brown. 387 pp. $23.99

It takes a little nerve for a non-native Mississippian to write a novel with "Mississippi" in the title, but Nanci Kincaid -- who spent her early years in Florida -- isn't fazed by stepping onto hallowed literary ground. Never mind the Mississippi pantheon of Faulkner, Welty and Wright or the more recent lineup of Lewis Nordan, Beverly Lowry, Barry Hannah and Donna Tartt. Kincaid, who received her MFA from the University of Alabama and has written several novels and short stories with Southern motifs, doesn't even aim to compete with Mississippians' stylistic idiosyncrasies; she simply borrows their state as the setting of an archetypal Southern upbringing.

Her straight-up storytelling makes for comfort fiction the way Mississippi cooking (which figures prominently in these pages) makes for comfort food: It's familiar, easy enough to gulp down and, in its descriptions of decent folks struggling to grapple with their cultural legacies, unassuming and likable.

One of the biggest Mississippi legacies is capital-R Race, but at first Kincaid doesn't seem to be going down that road. Her protagonist, the wonderfully named Truely Noonan, is a white high school football player who disapproves of the way his sister, Courtney, defies their parents and leaves home for California. Kincaid, whose 1998 novel, "Balls," described the women in a college football coach's life, here writes convincingly from the perspective of a young man who's most comfortable sweating through practice alongside childhood friends.

A son of the post-civil rights era, Truely is close to a black ballplayer named Mose, who will ultimately play professionally and figure in the novel's resolution. Although Truely loves his traditionalist Mississippi life, when it's his turn for college, he surprises even his homebody self and follows Courtney to California, where he eventually makes a fortune in the booming Internet biz. He and his sister both marry young, live in West Coast luxury their parents can't imagine and then watch, bewildered, as their marriages fall apart.

Truely's and Courtney's early lives are recounted in such episodic fashion that it's hard to know when all this is going to lead us back to Mississippi or the lurking subject of race, but because this is a Southern narrative, the writer takes her sweet time, and the reader might as well settle in. Sure enough, before the novel's midpoint, after the marriages and the Mississippi parents have died, a black teenager named Arnold walks into the story and steals it away.

Arnold leaves his home base in San Diego and insinuates himself into Truely's San Francisco loft, where the newly single Courtney is also spending lots of time. The threesome form a hybrid substitute family and soon face a crisis when a mutual friend is grievously wounded in Iraq. They travel up and down the California coast to visit him, all their movement signifying, perhaps, the transience of contemporary life and, perhaps, the distances some American novels travel to get where they're going. When Arnold -- a high school dropout whose mother deals drugs and who has himself done time in juvenile detention -- latches onto Truely and Courtney, the story may not literally go back to Mississippi, but it does its Southern best to suggest that we are living in the Age of Maybe We Can Finally Get Past This Race Thing.

Kincaid's no-muss-no-fuss style sometimes clunks along the way the title of the novel does. She is not averse to cliches (Courtney's husband takes to religion "like a duck to water"; Courtney cooks "enough food for an army"), but she generally prefers the literal to the metaphorical. Many minor characters of no great significance poke their heads in, and many plot points -- including an all-American explosion of violence -- ensue. In the style-vs.-content divide, Kincaid is all about content.

And ultimately, the content of this novel appeals. When Arnold first enters the story, warning bells go off: Will he be asked to bear the conceptual weight of anxiety that white writers so often project onto black characters? The answer unfolds the way a hot Mississippi day does, slowly, but Kincaid uses the time to develop Arnold as fully flesh-and-blood. The intertwining connections among Truely, Courtney and Arnold are finally hopeful without being naive, unexpected without being gimmicky. Arnold is a complicated human being who both reflects and transcends our collective American racial woes (Mose, the high school football buddy, is much more of a prop).

Many of the issues Kincaid raises in this novel, from the wisdom of cosmetic surgery to our despair over Iraq, trail off, unresolved, and many of those issues wouldn't have been raised in the first place without the piles of money on which Truely and Courtney conveniently sit. But Kincaid comes at our racial tensions head-on, and in the process she suggests a way for Southerners to go home after all . . . sort of. This novel isn't, in the end, so much about Mississippi as it is about our American future, and on that subject it is decidedly and sweetly optimistic.

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