By Jill McCorkle
Algonquin. 343 pp. $18.95
In Jill McCorkle's "Ferris Beach," Kate Burns is in a common adolescent female predicament: She is torn between competing versions of being female. On one side is her beautiful cousin, Angela, who wears bikinis and waitresses at a seafood joint in Ferris Beach. On the other is Kate's mother, a former history teacher and a blue-blooded Bostonian who hums "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree" while pruning her roses and drinks a napkin-covered beer once a year at Christmas. In contrast with her eccentric husband, a mystery-writing mathematician, she is a matronly, conservative woman who nightly makes Kate recite the poem "Lord Help Me When I Whine."
Kate's first interaction with the mysterious Angela is at Ferris Beach when she is 5. "Watching her come down the dune was almost like seeing a movie in slow motion, seeing every step of her long bare legs ... so young-looking and glamorous in her two-piece sparkly gold suit." Though she doesn't see Angela again for years, this encounter haunts Kate. Eventually she also discovers the unconventionality that Angela represents in Mo Rhodes, the mother of her best friend, Misty.
The Rhodes family is one of the first to inhabit the split-levels in Whispering Pines, the new subdivision that springs up across from the Burnses' older house. Mo shocks the neighborhood by painting her shutters peacock blue, putting a fish statue surrounded by white pebbles in her yard and naming her baby after Buddy Holly. Most important, Mo is young and accessible, like Angela and unlike Kate's mother. "I loved to think of her, the way she breezed into Misty's room when I spent the night and in one swift movement tucked the covers around us and then stretched out at our feet to tell us a story... ."
Surrounded by female phantoms, Kate fixates on Helen Keller, even plays a game in which she blindfolds herself and fumbles around the room. Keller is soon replaced by Anne Frank. Kate imagines her in a "pinafore, thick dark hair clipped on one side. ... Her voice came to me with a Southern lilt similar to my own." Kate thinks too of Themista Rose Allen, a Ferris Beach legend and Misty's namesake, who at 16 drowned wading the inlet toward her lover. And probably most disturbing and influential is Angela's mother, who died at 17, moments after giving birth.
When Angela finally visits the Burns family, she comes like a magician with a whole bag of makeup, transforming Kate while out on a shopping spree. She "insisted that I try on very grown up and glamorous evening dresses. She got a long frosted fall from the wig department and ... some sexy spike heels from the shoe department and convinced me that being tall was sophisticated." She even convinces Kate's mother, Cleva, to get a short shag.
Kate's inability to choose between her mother's and Angela's attitudes colors every scene with indecision. When Mo Rhodes abandons her family for another man and dies soon after in a car crash, Mr. Rhodes marries Sally Jane, a "birdish" woman. Her sense of self still diffuse, from her back yard Kate watches Merle Hucks's house beyond the kudzu. Merle is Kate's classmate, and she is fascinated by his working-class family and shabby house. One night she sees Merle's brother, Dexter, and his fellow motorcycle-gang members rape Dexter's girlfriend. Merle tries to stop the rape, and it's his horror and sensitivity that eventually attract Kate.
Though the novel is often somber, even lurid, there are lighter moments. At a church retreat Kate and Misty spend all their time trying to think up rock songs that could be sung in the sanctuary. At the climax of the rock opera they write, Jesus comes up to Rachel at the well and sings Jim Morrison's "Hello I Love You."
"Ferris Beach" takes place in the late '60s and early '70s. Kate belongs to the generation of people whose parents were shaped by the '50s and who were too young themselves to be changed much by the turbulent times. The philosophical controversies of the '60s are reflected in "Ferris Beach" by shifts in the moral and ethical actions of the characters, and by the town's development. Mrs. Poole, the town's matriarch, announces at a meeting of the Clemmonsville historical society, "The split-levels are coming!" Though a subdivision like Whispering Pines does signal growth, it also marks a kind of melancholy change in the town. The old brick high school will be replaced by a bigger modern one. In the last days of the old school, Kate looks at the Confederate statue in the schoolyard and thinks of Mr. Clayton, a man with a voice like Foghorn Leghorn, who told her the legend of the statue's coming out of the yard into town once a year to urinate. Soon after at Mr. Clayton's funeral, a farmer uses "his crop duster plane to come into town and spiral and twist and leave trails of smoke like a dogfight." It is like a grand finale, one that marks in Clemmonsville the loosening grip of the Old South and the ascendancy of the New.
Though these changes are believable and well rendered, Kate's relationship with Merle Hucks seems predictable. She has gained some understanding of passion, of life's complications, but in rejecting Angela and breaking with Merle, Kate becomes a girl not just more mature but also more normal, more mundane.
Nonetheless, "Ferris Beach" is a dense, well-written novel that does illuminate both the sadness and the possibilities of renewal in relationships. Kate Burns sees the frustrations in her mother's life, the violence in Angela's. She sees too that pain is as intrinsic to intimacy as hope, and that for everyone in Ferris Beach -- including herself -- there is a second chance.
The reviewer, author of "Up Through the Water," is at work on her second novel.