"Dwelling Places," Burke Davis III's ambitious and for the most part successful first novel, fulfills many of our expectations about southern fiction:
Its subject is the unfathomable mystery of kinship. Its characters, who are almost without exception either humorously grotesque or extremely trying, find themselves between the rock of another age -- the rural, 19th-century South -- and the valueless 20th century, a hard place. Its meaning is complex and elusive. Its narrative is laced with flashbacks. Its narrator is judgmental of his family's values and, as he discovers, tainted by them.
The setting is an unnamed city in present-day North Carolina (I guess Greensboro, because the city in the novel is a "dollah 'n' somethin' bus ride from Burlington and $4.50 from Charlotte, and it has the state's second tallest building). Davis has chosen the moment in the life of a family that, better than any other, illuminates the character of its members. The narrator's grandmother, Irene Jackson, has died, the family has gathered for the funeral and, because her husband, Poppy, is in a "home," from which he will not be permitted to return, Irene and Poppy's goods and chattels are being divided up among their children. The peculiar juxtaposition of grief and greed that arises at such times has a way of exaggerating aspects of our personalities that are not always clear, not even to ourselves. At such times, we show our true stripes.
For Young Irene, also known as Junior, and for Helen, the late Irene's two eldest daughters, the stripes are broad and white and extend dorsally -- one for each -- from the middle of their muzzles to the tip of their bushy tails. They are two stinkers -- pretentious, hypocritical, cold-hearted, sharp-tongued and greedy -- in Junior's case, to the point of criminality. Although they are too unrelievedly bad to be fully convincing as characters, they are often quite funny:
"'Who gets the silver service?' I said.
"They looked at one another. 'I remember, Mother promised that to you, didn't she, Helen?'
"Helen seated herself beside her sister, rested her chin in both palms. She looked at the piece of sky that showed above the air conditioner, wrinkling her eyebrows so that they almost touched. 'You know, I think I remember something like that.'
"'It was Christmas before last,' Junior said.
"'i believe it was,' Helen said, her puzzled look slowly dissolving.
"'I remember it perfectly now,' Junior said. 'It was during a commercial while we were watching "A Christmas Carol."'
"'How could I ever forget?' Helen asked, her voice a bright bell tone, smiling at her sister.
"'Who gets the corner cupboard?' I asked.
"Junior looked to Helen, cocking her head to one side. 'I remember Mother saying she wanted Young Irene to have it,' Helen said. 'I remember exactly what she said. She said, "I want Junior to have the corner cupboard." Those were her exact words.'"
The "I" in this scene, Little Harlan, is one of the most laconic narrators you are ever likely to meet. "Who gets the silver service" amounts to a major speech for him. Considering the difficulty of revealing the character of a first-person narrator, even when he is garrulous, it is a wonder that Davis built such a problem into his story. There are times when Davis seems to be straining to make the first-person work. In order to overhear an important exchange between Junior and Little Harlan's father, the narrator must be sneaked into a bathroom off the den in which the scene occurs, and only a moment before Little Harlan's father says, "There's no one in here in the den. Let's sit in here and talk."
Little Harlan and his father (who is Harlan Junior, which begins to get confusing in a book review, but makes perfect sense if you know southern families, or southern fiction) are very much alike: Both tend to keep their distance from Junior and Helen and Sully (the third weird sister; I'm coming to her); both are relatively sane; both have good hearts but are slow to use them. Both, toward the end of the book, shed their distance to do the right thing; figuratively, they move out of the bathroom and into the den.
It is on behalf of Davis' two best characters that they act: Sully and Tiny, a black woman who began as Irene's cook, at $5 a week, and 30 years later was Irene's friend as well, still making $5 a week. Now Junior and Helen want to gyp her out of her inheritance, a small house in a poor neighborhod in which she has been living rent-free all those years. She is a comic figure, always tipsy, her wig askew, reading gruesome newspaper stories that "gives me the horribles all over." But she is not afraid to speak her mind, and in a climactic moment she delivers upon Junior a well-placed and well-deserved punch in the face.
Sully is Davis' richest creation: brassy, vulgar, once-beautiful, and now 50 and utterly lost to drink and despair. When told of her mother's death, the first thing Sully says into the telephone is, "Oh, my God, honey, what am I going to wear?" But the callousness is only superficial. Sully is not some hard-bitten dame with a closet full of dresses; the only clothes she owns are borrowed and inappropriate, and she is flat broke, although she lives with two of her former husbands. Her problem has always been that she cares too deeply. Even her sisters, who treat her with such malignity that she ought to be able to dismiss them, can hurt her. In the end, Sully and Tiny perform the only genuinely selfless acts in the book; neatly, each acts to help the other.
"Dwelling Places" is strongest in its characters and its humor. At times, especially early on, Davis' writing is somewhat flat, his metaphorical language uninspired. At times, I wished for a brisker pace, for a more straightforward time sequence; at times, I thought the significance of his story should be sharpened. But these misgivings are mostly overcome by what is good in the book. Davis should write more novels. I'll read them, and won't be surprised if he gets better and better.