T R. PEARSON'S second novel is on the one hand a change of pace from his highly successful first, A Short History of a Small Place, and on the other wholly of a piece with it. The outrageous humor that so distinguished his first novel is less in evidence here; the tone is darker, and the inhabitants of Pearson's fictional North Carolina small town, Neely, are seen in somewhat harsher light. Yet not merely is the setting the same, with several characters making return appearances, but so too are the jaunty, loquacious narrative voice and the serious themes upon which Pearson constructs his human comedy. Within the brief space of two novels, Pearson has made Neely into a world all his own, one that is already being compared to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha; this may seem a trifle premature, and probably is, but there is considerable justification for it.
Off for the Sweet Hereafter is, as its title suggests, in large measure a book about death -- one that, as its title also suggests, declines to treat this gloomy subject with even a trace of morbidity. In A Short History of a Small Place, a central image was that of the spectacular and (yes) hilarious death of Miss Myra Angelique Pettigrew, who soared off the water tower into Neely mythology; in Off for the Sweet Hereafter it is that of the quiet and ordinary death of one Mrs. Throckmorton, ne'e Jeeter, which marks the beginning of an unquiet and extraordinary period "when robbery and threats and endangerment were more prevalent than they had been at any time before." It is a time when Neely is in the grip of forces larger than it is accustomed to, when its placid routine is disrupted and violated.
Yet there is nothing larger than life, nothing extraordinary, about the agent of this abrupt change. He is Benton Lynch, a nephew of the deceased Mrs. Throckmorton, a faceless figure in Neely's little crowd who suddenly falls under the spell cast by an 18-year-old temptress named Jane Elizabeth Firesheets. "Mostly he hadn't ever been anything previously, not dissatisfied or satisfied either and certainly not troubled and impassioned on account of a woman, or on account of those parts of a woman that men generally get troubled and impassioned on account of . . . ," but Jane Elizabeth uses her "milky white and plum-colored parts" to lure him into her net. What Jane Elizabeth wants a man to be is "mean and vicious," and what she wants him to give her is action, of the violent kind.
So poor Benton, prisoner of his passions, feeling "just vacant and just hollowed out aside from somewhat agitated and somewhat tormented too" after Jane Elizabeth maneuvers him into a fit of jealousy, sets out to show her his mettle. This implacably ordinary man becomes an agent of mayhem, "mayhem pure and undiluted they said on the television and in the papers," invading the country stores of the North Carolina countryside and robbing their owners at gunpoint. Jane Elizabeth eggs him on with her sexual favors and, when necessary, the threat to withhold them; Benton presses on until at last he kills a man, at which point the exact nature of what he has been doing dawns on him and he identifies the truly guilty party.
It is, as the dust jacket says, a "Bonnie and Clyde story," but it is scarcely a "rollicking adventure" and its climax is far from a "bloody blaze of glory." To the contrary, Off for the Sweet Hereafter is a tale of twisted passion and lost hopes, of the tidy way life has of arousing our expectations and then declining to meet them. Though the story of Benton Lynch is the chief vehicle through which these themes are explored, they are succinctly summarized in the tale of one of Pearson's countless secondary characters. His name is Evander Buffaloe, he is the bookkeeper at the Brownlee brothers' slaughterhouse, and he has walked out on his wife and grown, if not grown-up, children after saying at the dinner table, "I do wish I could find somebody somewhere worth a great big goddamn":
"It seems nothing much had turned out quite like Mr. Buffaloe had figured it would. He had figured his children would grow up and move somewhere else, which they didn't, and he had figured his momma could not make him feel lonely and disappointing once she was dead, which she could, and he had figured American democracy would handily persuade and overcome a negligible assortment of misguided savage orientals, which it wasn't able to do, and he had figured the honorable Governor George Corley Wallace for the thirty-eighth president of these United States, which he never was, and he figured Pontiac for a shrewd and perceptive investment, which it did not turn out to be, and he had figured Elizabeth Taylor would somehow avoid getting plump and girthsome, which she eventually got, and he had figured he would become contented and satisfied with employment at the slaughterhouse, which he hadn't yet, and he had figured the Baptist church and its clergy and laymen and the most of its regular associates to be at least near about as stiffly and earnestly forthright and upstanding as they claimed to be, which they weren't not locally anyway any longer, and so now at last after all his previous figuring and all his subsequent thwarted expectations Mr. Buffaloe went ahead and decided there was not much left in the world worth a great big goddamn except maybe for somebody somewhere."
THE DIFFERENCE between Mr. Buffaloe and Benton Lynch is that the former believes in possibilities until he is shown otherwise, while the latter does not believe in them until he is excited by the lure of a beguilingly evil woman. But in the end both are disappointed, both are exposed to life's cruelties, ironies and frustrations. This may seem to contradict my claim that Off for the Sweet Hereafter is in no way a morbid book, but the point is that Pearson accepts disappointment as an inescapable reality and celebrates the ways in which we go merrily on despite it all. The price Benton Lynch pays for his frolics with Jane Elizabeth Firesheets is not exactly small, but those frolics were not exactly punishment, either; along the way to his showdown with Sheriff Burton, Benton had himself a good deal more fun than he'd ever thought he had any right to expect -- indeed, more fun than he'd ever had any idea even existed.
Benton is not, unfortunately, anywhere nearly as memorable as the story in which he stars. Only at the end, when he comprehends what he has done and thus who he is, does he acquire any real humanity and depth; until then he is an unpleasant, dislikeable fellow for whom it is extremely difficult to work up any sympathy or interest. But all the other characters are so robust, and Pearson's language is so distinct and colorful, that the novel succeeds in spite of this considerable weakness. Its meandering narrative style is hypnotic (and, it should be added, always under control), its depiction of small-town life is penetrating, and its unflagging affection for humanity in all its foibles is endearing. The world T.R. Pearson is constructing just gets larger and larger; the pleasures of entering it are irresistible.