Lorene Cary, who broke onto the literary landscape 20 years ago with a beautifully evocative memoir called “Black Ice,” has written a novel, her third, worthy of that auspicious beginning. It’s set partly in her home town of Philadelphia, and this is a writer who knows her Philadelphia. She knows there are workhorses stabled in the heart of the city, just blocks away from modern high-rises. She is aware that one can get lost on the narrow streets as easily as on the back roads of South Carolina. She also knows the South and the legacy of human frailty that its sons and daughters sometimes drag around like a battered, burned corpse.
At its heart, “If Sons, Then Heirs” is about the complexity of family and its inheritances, both spiritual and territorial. That sense of family erupts out of 30-year-old Alonzo Rayne, a savvy, self-taught builder in Philadelphia. With the prospect of his first city contract near and at the urging of his companion, Lillie, he yearns to find his mother, who abandoned him at age 7 to a friendly-looking stranger on a train headed south to the Carolina coast. As Selma, the remarkable woman who raised him, puts it, “His mother sent ’im away like a sack o’ mail.”
But when Lillie’s 9-year-old son, Khalil, innocently calls him “Dad” for the first time, Rayne knows he must find his own mother. He and the boy have a relationship cemented by abandoned objects rescued from building sites. With Khalil, Rayne makes a pivotal trip home to South Carolina to see his beloved Selma and tie up loose ends involving some family land.
Friendships and alliances are made and unmade throughout this novel. Many important ones revolve around that family land, its history and the complicated issue of establishing the rightful heirs. The author conveys such a visceral, physical sense of the property — the smell, weight and feel of the very dirt under a bare foot — that we can practically feel its pull on Rayne. But Carey never romanticizes this place. She knows the aftermath of white-on-black violence in a small South Carolina community: “Everyone adjusted, went on living, like they’d been doing together for years. Happened every ten years or so. . . . The scum bubbled up to the top; they skimmed some off and let the rest roil back into the pot.”
Readers are in the sure hands of a mature craftswoman. For a novel that deals with such serious issues, there is also humor, usually supplied by Selma, who can be slyly funny although she is clearly one of the walking wounded, just as wounded as Rayne or his tragic mother.
Cary’s only misstep is in the resolution of that mother-son relationship. It feels rushed, loosely explained, too facile. In some novels, that would be a fatal flaw. However, in this work, so rich in story, character and authentic emotion, it is merely a glitch. As Rayne and his hobbled-together family discover, it is the whole life and not just the culmination that is satisfying and true.
Ansa is a publisher and the author of five novels. Her sixth, “From Now On,” will be published in 2012.
If Sons, Then Heirs
By Lorene Cary
Atria. 306 pp. $24