Within any family there generally evolves, over the years, an inbred and private comic view of that family's own misfortunes, weaknesses and even tragedies. It is a way of survival, a dark gleefulness that allows the family to carry on. Unfortunately, the horror at the core of humor such as this can rarely be translated to an outsider in a way that will evoke even the slightest amusement. At the least a stranger is taken aback; usually he is silently appalled, and I think any reader will initially be forced into the same reaction by Shelby Hearon's new book, "A Small Town."
Hearon moves us so quickly and glibly into this ambitious story of family intrigue that we have no chance to form an attachment to any of her characters, nor are we able to determine her intention. Perhaps she has tried for too much. The story is told in retrospect by Alma van der Linden, and not only attempts to chronicle her childhood spent in sad isolation with her emotionally damaged parents but also tries to unravel the mysteries of Alma's family history and convey to us the ambiance of a small town on the banks of the Missouri River.
I think the author is aiming for a voice that evokes the Midwest -- a bit brusque and wry. When Alma's best friends move away, she muses about her grade-school teachers, "that I was going to be left by myself for nine more years of mean Miss Matlock, nasty Miss Nelson, prudish Miss Pollard, dim Miss Dunlap, silly Miss Simpson, and the rest of them."
If these women -- those people in one's past whose personalities colored nine months of each year -- can be so summarily described, then we assume the author means us to take this lightly. But since this tone prevails we have no idea how to respond when we come upon the evidence of Alma's grim childhood. "That was the first time she locked me in the closet . . . I wet the floor and slept in it. The next morning, when Mother slipped up to unlock me, she started to spank me for it, but I pushed her away. 'Not all night,' I told her in a high voice, startled to hear myself set up the first rule between us.
" 'All right,' she conceded, seeing she was going to have to clean up the smelly mess herself or I would be late for school . . . After that it got to be a habit. Whenever Daddy came home early and she didn't want me around, she shoved me into the big upstairs bedroom closet . . . Then she crept up the stairs and let me out . . . In this way, gradually, at six years old, I took over the front bedroom which looked down on the street, had window seats full of old flannel blankets, and three wide windows which opened onto the roof."
It only strikes us as peculiar that the protaganist, in retrospect, regales us with this small atrocity committed against her and trails off into a description of her room. The point of view is a real hindrance to our giving ourselves over to the material, because we know we are being addressed by an adult who could, if only she would, interpret more fully for us. But the main problem is that we don't much care about Alma. Throughout the entire book the emotional nature of her character never expands enough to allow us to infer tragedy, or at least sorrow.
The author is at her best when she is detailing the labyrinthine goings-on in the community of Venice, Mo., where generations of van der Lindens have lived. I wish that had been the focus of this tale, because she is quite good at conveying the workings of this small town.
Hearon is extremely perceptive, and often very funny, about the complex and various negotiations that must be carried out among citizens of such a close community simply to preserve the peace. It is too bad that she felt the need to weave so many other threads through the tapestry.