PERHAPS IT will be useful to begin this review, which will be uninhibitedly enthusiastic in every respect, with a caveat. I have never met T.R. Pearson and know nothing about him beyond what little the dust jacket tells, but I know the country in which he has set "A Short History of a Small Place" almost as well as I know the back of my own hand. Much of my childhood was spent near the Virginia city of Danville and a decade of my adulthood was lived in the North Carolina city of Greensboro, both of which figure large in Pearson's story. I have driven the road that connects them, U.S. 29, more times than I could ever count or recall; it is somewhere around or about this road, in Rockingham County I do believe, that Pearson has located the North Carolina town called Neely whose history this extravagantly comic novel purports to be.
For reasons of affection, sentiment and nostalgia, then, I have some difficulty seeing Pearson's first novel with the chilly objectivity that should be a reviewer's stock in trade; I read it with no small sense of homecoming, a sense that can play havoc with the emotions. But it is one thing to be drawn to a book by personal intimacy with its landscape or subject, and quite another to consider its merits as a work of fiction. On this latter count I have no doubts or reservations; A Short History of a Small Place is an absolute stunner, the work of a writer who may be young but whose command of his material never falters, who knows exactly what he is doing and does it with the sure hand of one far older and more experienced.
Because Pearson is indeed young there is evidence in his work of the influence of others, but his literary bloodlines are excellent to say the least. n his exuberant storytelling there's more than a trace of Sut Lovingood and Huckleberry Finn, of the comical Faulkner of The Hamlet and The Reivers, of the similarly comical Welty of Losing Battles, the book that A Short History most closely resembles. There are hints of the language of all three of these writers in Pearson's prose, but you can also detect Ring Lardner in his use of the vernacular as well as W.C. Fields in his owlish humor; his eye for the vainglorious could be Mencken's, his nose for the ludicrous could be Thurber's.
He's all of these and none, because mainly Pearson is Pearson, disguised as a 15-year-old boy named Louis Benfield Jr. who is the novel's narrator or, perhaps more accurately, amanuensis. What he records is not so much his own observations and experiences as the talk of a town in which gossip is the principal local business. In particular he records the talk of two people: his father, th wry, sardonic and loving "Daddy," and Mrs. Philip J. King, a neighbor whose capacity for nosing into the affairs of others is limitless. Ostensibly all this talk is about the legendary life and spectacular demise of Miss Myra Angelique Pettigrew, a once-beautiful and wealthy spinster who had been for the town the embodiment of elegance and sophistication. But talk about Miss Pettigrew merely leads, as talk is likely to do, to other things:
"That was the day Miss Pettigrew stopped being just peculiar. She'd been peculiar ever since I'd heard tell of her and ever since I'd known what being peculiar meant, but now when folks spoke of her they would say she was Not Right, which was an advancement of a sort. The town of Neely had seen a blue million peculiarities in its history, but those among its citizenry who were genuinely not right were rare and cherished. In my day alone I'd seen any number of oddballs but less than a handful of the truly unbalanced, and three of them were from the same famly. They were the Epperson sisters, and they had distinguished themselves in the minds of the Neelyites by going from reasonably normal to unquestionably insane without ever stopping at peculiar."
At this point it is of course necessary to tell the story of the Epperson sisters, who wished themselves declared triplets even though they most assuredly were not, which leads in turn to the story of the life and sad death of Sheriff Browner, which takes us back to the Pettigrews for a bit before we go off to hear about Daddy's Uncle Warren and then to be introduced to the Pettigrews' pet monkey, Junius Pettigrew, a.k.a. Mr. Britches, whose role in various matters is large and mysterious. Among these is the case of Pinky Throckmorton, whose dignity Mr. Britches most seriously affronts, and whose arrival in the tale naturally requires that we hear the story of Pinky's war against the pigeons:
"It wasn't the pigeons that did Pinky in, it was just Pinky, and not even Pinky really, Daddy said, but only near ceaseless, interminable, never-ending, everpresent talk of Pinky from the women, which meant Pinky Throckmorton to digest over breakfast, during lunch and at the supper table, which meant the evening air all ripe with Pinky Throckmorton, which meant Pinky Throckmorton in the bedroom at night with the house dark after an entire day of Pinky Throckmorton with the sun in the sky and the lights burning. But of course it wasn't just Pinky alone, Daddy said, since talk of Pinky naturally lead to talk of Bubba and talk of Bubba led to talk of Poppa and talk of Poppa led to talk of the former Miss Fuller and her Momma and Daddy, the prophetess and Latter Day Saint-Quaker, and her older sister who was still a Miss Fuller and so gave cause for some comment."
ON AND ON the talk goes, winding its sinuous way from Pinky and Mr. Britches -- not to mention Judge Mortenson and Mr. Curtis Amos' straw fedora -- to the scandalous behavior of Miss Sissy Nance, and the great duck war between the Nances and the Gottliebs, and the general disputation over the precise nature of the relationship between Miss Pettigrew and Mr. Alton Nance, and the expiration of the saintly Zeno Stiers, and the appearance of Mr. Conrad Rackley, who hails from the West Virginia end of Kentucky. One after another the shaggy-dog stories come, and just when you think it is entirely impossible for Pearson to top himself he turns right around and does just that -- right to the end, when Miss Pettigrew is lowered into the ground after obsequies by, among others, the Reverend Holroyd, the Reverend Mr. Richard Crockett Sheldon and the Reverend W.B. Red Hamilton.
If it all weren't so incredibly funny it would be inestimably sad, which is precisely Pearson's point. The human comedy -- and in the truest sense of the term, A Short History of a Small Place is just that -- always is laughter beneath which lurk sorrow and loss, and so it is in the rich layers of this novel. What young Louis Benfield is receiving, as he recites the history of a place in which lunacy seems to prevail, is an education in life's hard realities, an education both practical and moral. In the story of Miss Pettigrew he learns something about love and betrayal; in that of Pinky Throckmorton, something about the true nature of dignity; in that of the dead sister he never knew, something about "fate and courage and the trials of existence." Not to mention what he learns from the death of Mr. Zeno Stiers:
"It was a sorrowful few days in Neely after Mr. Zeno passed away. Stierses converged on Lamont Street from all over the southeast and most everybody from one end of town to the other went around with Mr. Zeno's virtues on their lips. Of course it was an exceedingly black time for chickens as well. Legions of them got fried and roasted while a considerable few showed up in pot pies and casseroles boiled off the bone. There was beef too and pork barbeque and potato salad and bean salad and macaroni salad along with at least a metric ton of sweetened iced tea and enough molded gelatin to fill a bathtub. According to Daddy by the time he got to the Stiers's house, which was the evening following Mr. Zeno's expiration, the buffet had overflowed off the kitchen and dining room tables onto a bureau and two nightstands that had been especially imported for the occasion. And Daddy said once he had shaken hands with near about twenty Stierses he dished himself up an assortment of prepared poultry and was coming up fast on the cobblers and the pound cakes when he noticed, with measurable awe and trepidation Daddy called it, that he was sharing the dining room with perhaps the largest collection of deviled egg plates ever assembled under one roof. Daddy says it was a somewhat sobering revelation to him. Here he was enjoying a bounteous meal at Mr. Zeno's house while Mr. Zeno himself was off at the mortuary being siphoned. But Daddy says he simply decided that is the way things are on God's earth -- the dead get embalmed and the living get seconds."
So pass the pot pie and have another deviled egg; life goes on, fragile and heartbreaking though it can be, and each moment should be treasured because "this will never happen just this way again." For Louis that is the lesson that counts above all others, and for Pearson's wonderful novel it is the theme that echoes on every exuberant page. In a small place in North Carolina, Pearson has found the stuff of life, and thus has given us a world that is both his own and ours.