His daughter, a runaway, is dead of a drug overdose. He's lost his wife to a younger man, a poet for the Weird Willington Press of Zapsville, he says derisively. He's quit his job as information officer for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And he gets mugged one night walking home to his Washington apartment after a day spent halfheartedly searching for a job.
What has George Perry done to deserve all this? As it turns out, not a whole lot. Mostly, George doesn't communicate well. He speaks but people don't understand him, and he certainly doesn't understand them. His ex-wife Maureen tells him: "I guess I never could talk to you. You don't talk straight." His present lover Elizabeth says, "I don't believe you anymore, George. I don't think you know what you want. You say one thing and mean another." His dead daughter Claudie left home because George wouldn't listen when she tried to explain that her friend was simply the type of girl men attacked. But George Perry is also a victim -- of the huge chasm between generations and of women more independent than he can understand.
In her elegantly written second novel, "Tennessee Blue," Patricia Browning Griffith shows two cultures in collision: the bureaucratic would of which George Perry has always been at least a tangential part and the California drugtripping world of rock bands and movie sets that lure 16-year-old runaways, including George's daughter, to self-destruction.
But this is not the runaway's story. Claudie Perry has been gone from home two years when the novel opens; she's been dead five months. Her father realizes that he is not sure he remembers what she looked like. This is the story of the runaway's father and of a young man moved by her "magic."
Following George the night he is mugged is a lanky young man, the Tennessee Blue of the title, who was a friend of Claudie's at the end of her life. As if he is simply a passerby, Tennessee rescues George from a premature "grave" -- he's been attacked beside the excavation for a new subway -- and takes him home.
Before Claudie died she gave birth to a baby girl. Claudie has appeared to Tennessee in a dream, asking him to find her father and give him the baby, who lives with a couple on a houseboat in Austin, Tex. Tennessee breaks out of a Texas prison for youthful offenders and catches a bus to Washington. He intends to judge for himself whether George will be an acceptable parent.
George, as one might expect, does not communicate well with the wig-wearing, cowboy-hatted young man who carries a chord organ and a Venezuelan flight bag wherever he goes. When they finally come to blows -- only George throws one -- Tennessee heads for home. George follows to find his granddaughter.
This story, though farfetched at times, has compelling moments, and Griffith's lyricism is to be admired. We finally, however, do not believe in her title character. From his own first explanation of his name -- "My mother made it up. Blue she liked and Tennessee she wanted to go to" -- to his casual escape from prison to look for George, we find ourselves stretching to accept and believe. We don't know what motivates Tennessee other than the nebulous "magic" he found in his friend Claudie. Although everyone loves babies, that spur seems not sharp enough either. Tennessee's own point of view occupies roughly one third of the novel, yet it seems to be there only to fill in the blanks of Claudie's life, never, as it should, to explain Tennessee's.
The baby as motivating force also hampers our understanding of George. In his first effort at parenthood George was robbed of his daughter for reasons that are never fully delineated. He is ready to try again, but he never identifies what went wrong the first time.
Griffith seems most adept with the relationships of her grown-up: George, Maureen, Maureen's lover, Grey, and Elizabeth. They are developed carefully, unlike the parade of young people who clog this slim novel. We are fascinated, for example, that George watches Maureen on television where she is a talk show host. He even speaks to her when Elizabeth leave the room. We are intrigued that the discovery of the baby leads George to fantasize a new relationship between him and Maureen after a nearly passionless marriage. And we are relieved when George comes to appreciate his incredibly benign lover Elizabeth. These are the relationships that surprise and reward, the ones that surprise and reward, the ones that make "Tennessee Blue" worth reading.