The jacket copy for this first novel makes considerable claims, as jacket copy usually does: "There is a tradition of Southern women writers whose fiction has extraordinary range and power: Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers. Now there is 33-year-old Candace Flynt of Greensboro, N.C."
The only thing missing is the name of Eudora Welty.
But for once I'm not sure that this jacket copy is mere hype. There is something about "Chasing Dad" that feels like the work of those greats -- its realistic, slightly gothic portrayal of blue-collar Southern life, its themes of emotional impoverishment and doomed expectations, its felicitous phrasing, its passion and texture. Such comparisons are, however, really beside the point. Whether Candace Flynt will go on to make the kinds of contributions to American literature made by her Southern female predecessors can't yet be known, but she has made a stunning beginning.
"Chasing Dad" is the story of the Mitchell family of Durham, N.C., in the aftermath of the suicide of the older of two sons, Jay. After winning a full academic scholarship to Duke, Jay is tricked into marriage with the slatternly Melissa -- she of the "pimiento hair" and voluptuous body, convinced that "men and women are natural adversaries," a buyer of too many "necessary purchases" on credit. Forced to quit school to support a family, Jay is drafted into the Army, which he hates, and gradually he becomes more and more paranoid -- convinced that the hated Sgt. Jester is watching him through the TV screen -- and more and more obsessed with a futile search for his mother, Jenny, who went out one day when he was a baby to buy a pack of Lucky Strikes and never came back. Jay Mitchell knows he's going crazy and can't stop it; the only answer, the "final situation," he calls it, is to take his own life.
The novel begins in Jay's voice, describing the hours immediately before he hangs himself, and though he dies at the end of the first chapter, he becomes as unforgettable a character to the reader as he is to his family. Structurally, this beginning serves two purposes: the reader has his own picture of Jay to measure against what is later said of him by others; and, by having Jay fight with Melissa and then write letters to his family, we are introduced to all the major characters early on.
One of the most impressive things about this novel is, in fact, its structure, the shifting of point of view from character to character. It is a difficult technique, and more often than not, not used very successfully by writers of much greater experience than Candace Flynt. In "Chasing Dad," however, the alternating voices provide a delicate point-counterpoint, allowing for a revelation of character and plot that gradually accrues meaning as we see various perceptions of reality played off against each other.
These perceptions have to do not only with Jay and his suicide, but perhaps more importantly with Jay's father, Merle, to my mind one of the most compelling fictional characters within recent memory. Merle seems, in the beginning, the archetypal Southern redneck -- vainglorious, cocky, with an air of permanent injury. A carpenter by trade, with "huge competent hands that built the best houses in Durham, North Carolina," Merle -- hunter, combat veteran, womanizer, heavy drinker -- is twisted with loss, bitter over losing Jenny and bitter because his brother Otto, whom be despises and whose job he once saved, is now his boss. Jay's death is merely one more in a long line of losses.
When he learns of it, Merle smashes his good hand, the one he uses for carpentry, through a glass window, and then, later, destroys it with a hammer just as it is about to heal. He had built the best houses, but they were "always for other people, people who had enough money to send their children to college without scholarships or get them abortions if they needed them. And here he had to build their goddam houses. When really he was the smart one. Smarter than Otto who was too dumb -- like a fox -- to hammer a nail straight so got to be president instead. Let somebody take care of him for a while. Let Otto. His hand still hurt; his hand would always hurt. Nobody could say it didn't." Merle Mitchell is the kind of man one imagines joining the Klu Klux Klan out of his own sense of rage and helplessness and failure.
But though we begin by seeing Merle as a monster, we slowly come to sympathize, to see his humanity, his grief, until finally, thanks to Craig, the second son so desperate for his father's love, he is able to acknowledge his pain and, perhaps, look toward the future, although it is a matter for commendation that Flynt doesn't tie up the ends too neatly. But it is most of all a test of great skill, and heart, that Flynt can make us love so thoroughly unlovable a man as Merle Mitchell. And that, I think, is what fiction is all about -- loving the world, in all its unloveliness.