By Dennis McFarland
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; C04
SAFE FROM THE NEIGHBORS
By Steve Yarbrough
Knopf. 259 pp. $25.95
Steve Yarbrough's engrossing new novel, "Safe From the Neighbors," is a perfect example of Flannery O'Connor's famous formula for fiction: A good story just shows you what some folks will go and do, and do in spite of everything. But it's more than that for Yarbrough's narrator, Luke May, a history teacher at the high school in the fictitious Mississippi Delta town of Loring. He's given to dogged exploration not just of what folks will do, but why. The facts, he would insist, cannot be separated from their context.
Here are some of the facts: In September 1962, on the same night as the armed insurrection in Oxford that attempted to bar James Meredith from enrolling at the state university, a man shot and killed his wife in Loring. Earlier that night, he'd driven to Oxford with Luke's father, presumably to take part in the rioting. He was never indicted for the death of his wife, but he soon fled the state, taking with him his young son and daughter.
In the present day, that daughter -- now the beautiful, well-to-do and recently widowed Maggie Sorrentino -- returns to Loring to teach French at Luke's high school. The timing of her return is pivotal: Luke and his wife, Jennifer, have just sent their own girls off to college and are not faring very well as empty-nesters. Luke is smitten by the new teacher and embarks on a quest to learn the full truth of what happened that long ago night and the exact nature of his father's involvement. The result is a satisfying, deftly constructed narrative that contemplates the difficulty with which we shed our ties to history, what we might learn from the mistakes of our forebears (or fail to learn), and just what a complicated and mysterious business cause and effect is.
About a third of the way into the novel, there is a flashback scene in which Luke meets his future wife. They bump into each other in the stacks at the Ole Miss library, where he helps her find a source for the Carrollton (Mississippi) Massacre of 1886, in which more than a dozen black people were slaughtered in the local courthouse for daring to attend the trial of a white man. Incredulous and distraught, Jennifer, who spent some time as a girl in Carrollton, says, "I guess Carrollton's not the nice little town I thought it was." Luke points out that the massacre occurred almost 100 years ago, and she says, "Yeah. But once you know that something so awful happened, you can't ever feel the same about a place." Thus, in one brief exchange, Yarbrough offers us a glimpse of a particular Southern predicament, a context and a persuasive atmosphere for this intricate, absorbing tale.
McFarland's most recent novel is "Letter From Point Clear."