In this, her fourth novel, Lee Smith describes growing up -- rural, Southern, female, and in the '50s -- so authentically that those who came of age under similar circumstances will immediately recognize the territory. She supplies all the right details: home perms over the kitchen sink, 4-H potato salad contests, revival preachers saving souls at tent meetings, beauty contests, Girls' State conventions, and finally, revolt against the confines of family and a small town.
But here rebellion is far naught. Smith's message is not that you can't go home again, but that you can never really leave. At the end of "Black Mountain Breakdown" Crystal Spangler, the central character, approaches middle age as congealed in provincial life as a maraschino cherry in a Jello salad -- the kind so popular with the ladies of her fictional Appalachian home town, Black Rock, Va.
It isn't that she doesn't try to leave. For a time after college she lives in New York with a "foreign-looking" man named Jerold Kukafka. But he dies, rather mysteriously; Crystal has something of a nervous collapse, and she heads back south to Mama, a shrewd but likable widow named Lorene Spangler.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves, which is easy to do given the circuitous pattern of this narrative and the web of particulars surrounding it. Although Lee Smith does again what she has always done best in her novels -- build a complete and recognizable world around her characters -- she loses control in "Black Mountain Breakdown." The details of provincial life, which she could have chosen carefully for their significance and effect, begin to seem gratuitous, needless, merely an end in themselves.
Smith's first novel, "The Last Day the Dogbushes Boomed," written while she was still a student at Hollins College, is a study in wit, understatement and tension, which carefully unfolds a strange summer in the life of a quirky, precocious 9-year-old girl. In contrast "Black Mountain Breakdown" is a breathless roller-coaster of a book, spanning about 20 years in just over 220 pages. All of it is told in the present tense by an omniscient narrator who flits from the consciousness of one character to another or hovers above the action at the author's whim. It's all rather confusing. As Roy Blount says on the dust jacket in what is meant to be a compliment, "The closest thing to reading this would be reading 'Madame Bovary' while listening to Loretta Lynn and watching 'Guiding Light.'"
Well, I don't know about "Madame Bovary," but "Guiding Light," certainly.
We meet Crystal Spangler when she is about 10. She and her best friend, Audrey, are catching lightning bugs in a jar. In the succeeding pages, she and Audrey continue their friendship despite the fact that Audrey is overweight and good in math and Crystal is beautiful and good in English, and despite some other fundamental differences. Crystal loses her beloved Daddy, is raped by a retarded uncle (an event which is meant to explain a lot about. Crystal's subsequent behavior, although the omniscient narrator does not divulge any details of the act until near the novel's melodramatic conclusion), goes steady for a time with Black Rock High School's biggest man on campus, dates a succession of Southern gothic characters including a certified hillbilly and a revival preacher, and reacts to a variety of pressures from family members including her brothers, one a ne'er-do-well, the other a homosexual college professor. Eventually, she becomes a political wife, a role she does not adapt to well.
Crystal confronts nearly every trauma imaginable; she is touched by every trend that has come the way of her generation. She is subjected to every conceivable convention of her milieu, until she begins to seem a mere tool, a doll to be dressed up by her creator in a succession of recognizable costumes as the occasion demands -- cheerleader, hippie, sexpot, sweet young thing, English teacher, or clubwoman.
Even though there are some wonderful moments of comedy in this novel and a few exquisitely drawn minor characters, Smith's failure to define Crystal more clearly as a character is downright irritating. When Crystal returns to Black Rock after her stint in New York, we are told that "she has changed. . . She has a lot to think about." But there is never any effort to explore what these changes are or how they have occurred. There is no sense of development in Crystal. Things merely happen to her. And her story is at best -- like "Guiding Light" -- a soap opera.