Were Peter De Vries suddenly to transport himself from exurban Connecticut to small-town Louisiana; were he to make himself some three decades younger; were he to become not quite as funny as, well, Peter De Vries -- were all these somewhat unlikely events to come to pass, then Peter De Vries might well be a young novelist named James Wilcox, whose second novel "North Gladiola" is.
If Wilcox hasn't been reading his De Vries, then he's been soaking it up by osmosis or clairvoyance or extrasensory perception. The De Vries style is original, immediately identifiable and entirely inimitable, but the Wilcox style does an uncanny job of sounding very much like it, what with its off-the-wall dialogue, its deft mixture of high and low language, and its sharp depiction of human self-delusion. This isn't to say that Wilcox is merely a rank imitator, but that he's a young writer still feeling his way toward his own voice and still susceptible to outside influence; if De Vries is indeed his master, he'd be hard pressed to find a better one.
Wilcox touches on an impressively broad variety of subjects in this relatively brief novel, but his central one is the relations between, and the war between, the sexes. This heavy business falls upon the somewhat unprepossessing shoulders of Ethyl Mae Coco, who lives in the Louisiana hamlet of North Gladiola, hard by Tula Springs, with her husband Louis, a haberdasher whose business is gradually being eaten away by a shopping mall a few miles away in Mississippi. Her six children have more or less grown and more or less gone away, and now Mrs. Coco has turned her energies away from her household.
Specifically, she has turned them toward the Pro Arts Quartet, of which she is both cellist and guiding spirit. Other members are her fortyish son, George Henry Coco, first violin; Duk-Soo Yoon, second violin; and Myrtice Fitt, viola. They play Mozart and Brahms, Boccherini and Beethoven, at gatherings such as the grand opening of a new BurgerMat or the Miss Tula Springs Pageant. For their efforts they are paid $50 or thereabouts, which rather accurately reflects their collective worth as musicians.
Keeping the quartet (which briefly becomes a quintet and sometimes is a trio) going is Mrs. Coco's principal business, but she has other fish to fry as well, among them her deteriorating relationship with her husband (she now sees him as "a small, mean-spirited, very selfish man") and her most erratic one with George Henry, who has divorced a first wife whom Mrs. Coco likes and is preparing to take on a second one whom she most decidedly does not. There are the adventures and misadventures of her other sons and daughters, too numerous and complicated to describe. Then there is the matter of Mr. Yoon; he is a doctoral candidate, slaving away on a dissertation titled "Das Unheimliche: A Mediated Reply to the Existential Dilemma of the Tourist," and he is falling quite madly in love with Mrs. Coco.
Small wonder that life seems entirely too messy to her, or that she at last blurts out during confession: "I'm not sure if I believe in anything. I mean everything I thought I believed in, Jesus and Mary and heaven, love, all those things, I suddenly realized they were just words, they didn't mean a thing, Father, something is wrong with me. I just don't care anymore, I don't care about anybody or anything. I pretend to, I pretend to all the time, but deep down, I know I don't. I might as well be dead."
Funny she should say that, because dead is just about what Gyrene LaSteele would like her to be. Gyrene runs the beauty college across the street, the beauty college owns a Chihuahua that disappears all of a sudden, and all signs point to Mrs. Coco, or at least Gyrene thinks they do. Add to this the grindings of the local rumor mill, which has been chewing up everything it hears about Mr. Coco and Mr. Yoon, and before you know it Mrs. Coco has gotten herself into a mess that involves allegations of "drug dealing, marital infidelity, drunk and disorderly conduct, and murder." What on earth is a nice southern lady to do?
What indeed? There are enough twists and turns in Wilcox's slightly extravagant plot to keep Mrs. Coco spinning in any number of confusing directions, and the goings-on make for amusing reading -- not side-splitting -- but amusing. A somewhat sentimental conclusion brings the novel to a jarring halt, but getting there is fine. Wilcox writes smoothly, has a keen sense of social nuance and moves matters along briskly. "North Gladiola" is good, and the betting here is that Wilcox will get better.