WHEN THIS REVIEWER was last seen in Book World, he was reporting on new novels, two of which, The Watermelon Kid and The Whisper of the River, happened to be comic. Since then he has read four more good novels in this vein, including Charles Dickinson's Crows and Hilary Masters' Clemmons. Raney, a splendid first novel, and I Am One of You Forever, the work of an experienced writer who recently won the Bollingen prize for poetry, stand tall in this distinguished company.
Both novels are Southern; both are written in the first-person vernacular mode that harks back to Mark Twain; and both should be read in a rush -- a sitting or two. The comedy in both ranges from the quick thigh- slapping humor of the guffaw to the slow and indirect response of the faint smile. There is a wider range of experience embodied in I Am One of You Forever, a novel in which the author often uses tall tale and other forms of hyperbole to show life's possibilities, and the fell hand of death on one occasion darkens the otherwise sunny action, tinging it with pathos and privation.
Raney begins with the marriage of Raney Bell, a Free Will Baptist from Bethel, N.C., to Charles Shepherd, a Methodist (who yearns to become an Episcopalian) from Atlanta. The only thing the couple has in common is music. Raney is a lively but inhibited small-town girl whose behavior is circumscribed by her family and her church. Charles, an only child, thinks that sweet reason is the answer to everything. Charles is a product of the modern world who holds great faith in psychology. Raney comes from a matriarchy; Charles is not worldly enough or advanced enough to see women as the equals of men. On these considerable differences the action turns. The result is a playful and humorous war of the sexes, what James Thurber might have written had he lived in North Carolina rather than Connecticut. How this gentle comedy could have gotten its author in trouble with the administration of the Baptist university where he teaches -- his contract for next year was held up and an expected raise was denied -- only its members and God could possibly know.
DESPITE EDGERTON's being a professional educator, he has not only learned the English language but mastered its conversational idioms. Listen. Charles: "I have had one conversation with Mrs. Moss and one conversation with Mrs. Moss is enough. I am not interested in her falling off the commode and having a hairline rib fracture." Raney: "This is one of the areas of life Charles does not understand. . . Charles thinks old people are all supposed to grace him with a long conversation on psychology."
Raney is about coming to terms with marriage in a little town in Piedmont, North Carolina. I Am One of You Forever involves growing up on a mountain farm in western North Carolina. The action unwinds through the consciousness of a man looking back on his youth, but seldom are you aware that events aren't occurring in the present. We are carried quickly and surely from one situation to the next, and the scene changes when each new character -- usually an uncle from the mother's side of the family -- appears to pay a visit. The first of these is Uncle Luden, the prodigal son. "Any fatted calf, his days are numbered," says the boy's father, who goes on: "When Uncle Luden walks the street, strong men tremble and women squeal." Uncle Luden is followed by a series of uncles still more preposterous and finally by Aunt Samantha Barefoot, a country singer who is the most colorful of all this scattered tribe.
I Am One of You Forever is a series of far- fetched and winning stories, one following hard on the heels of the other. It is a novel to read and reread for its tales, its lovely cast of characters, and its poetry. It is also a novel to put on the shelf with Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty.
Somehow in these lugubrious times comedy is flourishing. Relish it, especially Edgerton and Chappell, while you can.