THE NOVELS here have all been published by presses that on Madison Avenue would be characterized as small and provincial, but each of them is good enough to have been published in New York or Boston, and all have been forged by skilled and experienced writers. The Silence of Snakes and The Watermelon Kid stem from journalists, I Hear the Reaper's Song, from an associate professor of English, and The Whisper of the River, from a physician. The action of each novel is deeply marked and distinctively colored by its setting; each is long on story, including anecdote and tall tale; and each partly depends upon autobiography, especially local and family history. None of these novels is innovative technically; nor is any neatly joined and highly finished in the sense of being well-made. Each is pleasantly old-fashioned and well worth reading. All will richly repay the time and attention given them. THE SILENCE OF SNAKES. By Lewis W. Green. John F. Blair, Publisher. 344 pp. $15.95.
THIS IS by far the most ambitious novel here, and it comes closest to being a major work of art. Green, a native of western North Carolina, knows the behavior and idiom and psyches of his mountain folk as thoroughly as he knows the landscape of Appalachia. He possesses the instinctive and winning sympathy for these hardy people that ran deep in James Agee and Thomas Wolfe and that appears today in John Ehle and William Hoffman. Green's prose, which often embodies moving images and poetic cadences, recalls these writers; but his style occasionally lapses into sentimental excess, as does his novel's action. When you are confronted by this novelist's flaws as well as his virtues, you are reminded most of Wolfe.
The plot chiefly explores the lives of two families -- the Guffeys and the Skillers; and the action unwinds in an isolated community on the edge of the mountains. The villagers live off the land, and some of them work for a tannery owned by an eastern holding company. The central figure, Earl Skiller, a combat veteran who is an expert woodsman and moonshiner, is both protagonist and antagonist. He quietly drifts from unassuming courage and strength into madness and murder. Finally he is redeemed in the eyes of the community through his alter ego, the boy Logan Guffey, and through the efforts of an alcoholic journalist who befriends both Logan and Earl.
Despite various loose threads and rough edges in the characterization and plot, this is a strongly realized and profoundly memorable work, especially in its sympathetic portraits and in the depiction of mountain life through the last 10 years of the Great Depression. THE WATERMELON KID. By Bill Terry. Louisiana State University Press. 166 pp. $14.95.
WHILE The Silence of Snakes has little humor in it aside from an occasional slapstick scene, The Watermelon Kid, intended to be humorous from beginning to end, is often funny and sometimes hilarious. A.J. Poole, who is the Watermelon Kid, manages to do a bit of everything. He forms a band to drink vast quantities of beer, serves time in a penitentiary for assorted peccadilloes, even runs a few minor scams while tearing up and down what the author calls the old roadhouse circuit in and around U.S. Highway 70 in Arkansas during the salad days of the 1950s. You might call this version of picaresque a literate and slightly uptown version of The Dukes of Hazzard. Nothing, not even death and prison, can alter the Watermelon Kid's sunny disposition or restrain his genius for comedy and chaos.
If you like the rip-roaring comedy that runs through American literature from the frontier humor of Mark Twain to the fiction of William Faulkner and Eudora Wel you should relish Terry's novel. THE WHISPER OF THE RIVER. By Ferrol Sams. Peachtree. 528 pp. $14.95.
THIS CHRONICLE of Porter "Sambo" Osborne Jr.'s adventures and misadventures takes up at the point that Ferrol Sams's first novel, Run with the Horseman, a book widely read and justly praised, leaves off. It follows Sambo's life in college at "Willingham University" during the late 1930s and early '40s, and it ends immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
There is a vast range of characters, most of whom are obvious and deliberate stereotypes who reflect suffering humanity at any time. I find it hard to believe that anyone has ever had so much fun and gotten such a good education in the process while immured at a Baptist college, but my judgment springs from my own defective education at other southern schools. Generally, however, both the author and his protagonist are more comfortable in the farm and small-town setting of the earlier novel than in the relatively cosmopolitan scene of Macon, Georgia, where Willingham University (apparently based on Mercer University) is located.
Sambo is uninhibitedly rambunctious, but he never hurts anyone, and his pranks are often winning and funny; yet there are far too many of them, and the book is therefore far too long. It does rise to a satisfactory culmination after an interminable series of similar events have slowly been played out. The antics of the Watermelon Kid are usually more engaging, if only because there are fewer of them, in an action that proceeds at a furious pace. But The Whisper of the River is not merely a collection of humorous anecdotes and tall tales by a masterly yarnspinner, for it has a wider scope and a deeper significance that embraces college life in most of its manifestations -- generational conflict, race relations, the coming of war, and other themes of enduring value. Run with the Horseman is a better novel, but anyone who like it will want to read this book. I HEAR THE REAPER'S SONG. By Sara Stambaugh. Good Books. 221 pp. $12.95.
THE PLOT of this beautifully written work turns on incidents that occured in a Mennonite community in Pennsylvania in 1896 and that deeply affected the numerous family connections involved, echoing through the years since. Should you be interested in life on a working farm and in the mesh of familial relations that holds most people in its web, you will be drawn to this novel, even if you are exasperated by institutionalized religion. The conflict steadily growing within the family and the community at large springs from changes in the Mennonite church that are at once as quaint and as up-to-date as the latest lunacy cropping up in American churches today. I wish that the religious element were not so sharp and intrusive and that the conflict were more nearly resolved, but the author is bound by the recalcitrant facts imbedded in her narrative. As is the case with the other novels considered here, the minor characters are numerous and shadowy; and in this instance the action is too finely drawn for its occasion. Nevertheless this is a fine performance by a writer of considerable ability and accomplishment.