The reviewer is an assistant editor of Book World.
At 6 feet 10 inches and nearly 300 pounds, Billy Luke Thomson, the protagonist in "Onliness," Dave Smith's first novel, is, like the father he never knew, a big man. Like his father before him, Billy Luke intends to join the Coast Guard. But unlike Big Jack Thomson, who died trying to rescue a boatload of girls off Kitty Hawk, N.C., Billy Luke has a knack for survival. Perhaps it is his innocence that protects him from the many dangers he encounters in this novel. He survives not by his wits but by his unwittingness, just as a baby can fall many stories from an apartment building window and live.
Billy Luke avoids his father's fate the day he sets off for the Coast Guard recruiter in Wilmington and ends up in an Army recruitment office in Raleigh. When an obliging fellow recruit points out his mistake ("Jesus, you ain't only big as a friggin' elephant but also is as dumb. Boy they raise some dumb s---- in the South. You are in the US of A's Army, friend."), Billy Luke sends him home on medical discharge and lands himself in a disciplinary unit ("Man shouldn't bust his fellow man like you done"). There he is assigned to a sergeant who doubles as the post track coach, a man of rare vision who realizes immediately that Billy Luke's calling is as a shot putter, and that is the role in which Billy Luke plays out his brief, Vietnam-era Army career.
Upon his discharge, Billy Luke, hitchhiking he does not know where, gets a ride with a man of even rarer vision, Tom Zucold, who in the long run will change Billy Luke's life, and within moments changes his name:
" 'That is some mother handshake you got there, sport,' Tom Zucold said.
'Name not sport,' he answered.
'Bet me it ain't. Didn't think it was,' Tom Zucold said . . . 'Name must be The Grip.' "
Tom Zucold takes The Grip home with him to Chapel, Va., (a semi-fictional place occupying the same geographical space in the Virginia Tidewater as the town of Poquoson), where Tom Zucold runs the Bowie Garage, routinely sticking what customers come his way. The Grip accepts a job as apprentice mechanic and unhydraulic lift, and is paid in Gatorade, fish and grits and a piece of Tom Zucold's dream of salvation and, later, of apocalypse.
I've barely made a dent in the plot, but it is early in "Onliness" that Smith and his characters are most appealing. The profane, mindless, say-what patter of The Grip and Tom Zucold is delightful, especially in its gentle parody of a way of speaking that actually exists, and that is itself parodic and full of humor.
In choosing characters who are not particularly articulate, Smith has created a problem for himself: how to make their speech and thought both interesting and plausible. His solution is clever, I think; their language is rich in the metaphor of what they know best, the automobile. When a whore on wheels shows up at the Bowie Garage to get her pleasure bus fixed, The Grip thinks of her like this: " Her hair was black and her eyes were almost Pontiac Grand Prix Almond, but not exactly. Her skin wasn't exactly Cadillac Ermine either. And those lips, well, the paint manuals just did not have a color like that. As she circled him, he thought mohair. He wasn't sure what mohair was but Tom Zucold told him that fine Cadillacs used to have it for seats . . . The woman was the closest thing to mohair that The Grip could imagine."
But an even better woman comes along, the daughter of one of Chapel's first families. Christened Promise Muddleman, divorced from Butch Land, she stops by the Bowie Garage one day and offers The Grip a ride on her pink Harley Davidson, which, he soon learns, she likes to drive at better than 100 mph. His first time out with a woman and he almost makes it to the promised land, but he is not to make it with Promise Land until their next date.
Some of us cannot get enough of this sort of low humor, but it is not long before Dave Smith, whose 10th book of poetry is also being published this month, and whose reputation as a poet is good and getting better, moves on to more serious stuff. Tom Zucold is not just your average crooked garageman; he is a man with a plan. The Carolina Kid, an aging, itinerant hustler at pool, is expected to make an appearance at the Virginia Beach Moose Hall, and Tom Zucold aims to bet his every cent on him. His faith in the Carolina Kid is blind and perfervid, and when he tells The Grip that the CK has "been known to carpenter some," a suspicion is born, and suddenly a lot of perverse Christian allegory begins to get in the way of a perfectly good story. You could try to ignore it, as I did, but when at book's end The Grip is back on the road with a child named Faith (who has Down's syndrome; tell me what that signifies), it gets pretty difficult.
The first half of "Onliness" is spent in expectation of the Carolina Kid, but his coming turns out to be a disaster. Tom Zucold and The Grip lose their money and are lucky not to lose their lives, victims of the CK and the whore on wheels. In the second half of the novel, Tom Zucold, his faith gone, is consumed by an unpleasant and overlong paranoid fantasy. He fortifies the Bowie Garage against The Committee (actually the Chapel Garden Club, chaired by Promise Land), which he thinks is out to get him and his property. The Grip becomes a soldier again in this battle of Bowie Garage, and is joined at arms by a black state trooper (there's a fanciful detail, for the Virginia of a decade ago) named Trooper Drilling, a marvelous, farcical character who enlivens the book's final chapter.
Any comic writing about the South must submit to comparison with the blessed trinity of modern Southern fiction writers: Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty. Smith can't hold his own in their company, of course (who can?), but his intentions are as literary as theirs. The problem is that "Oniness" does not hold together as a novel; its pieces just don't fit as they ought to. Nonetheless, many of those pieces shine with Dave Smith's cleverness and sparkle with his humor, and I won't soon forget the hours I've spent at the Bowie Garage.