Adams, Alice. A Southern Exposure.

NY: Knopf, 1995.

Alice Adams was one of the great storytellers of the late 20th century, best known for her short stories, but I’ve always loved her novels. And she was one of the great delineators of character, too, painting deft portraits of urbane but conflicted Northern women and smart but constricted Southerners. And she could set them in their milieu and tell you all the important things to know about them in just a few sentences.

The setting this time is the small college town of Pinehill (North Carolina, probably, though it’s never specified) and the time is 1938, with the Depression having made a lasting mark especially on communities that were never that well off to begin with. And most people are aware by now that another war is coming, though few in Pinehill will say so aloud and most don’t want to think about it. Cynthia and Harry Baird and their 12-year-old daughter, Abigail, have fled Connecticut (each for their own reasons) for a place where they hope they can regain their self-respect and their financial equilibrium. Harry had a job he hated. Abby’s school was full of rich girls she didn’t like; her only real friend was the son of the school’s black janitor. Cynthia had unpaid bills at Lord & Taylors, but she also has a crush (without having ever met him) on James Russell Lowell Byrd, a regionally famous poet living in Pinehill. The point of view switches among the two women and Russ Byrd himself (Harry mostly just provides background for his wife and daughter) as they sort out the complications in their lives which, as you knew they would, begin to intertwine about each other. Cynthia and Abby also have a great deal of adjusting to do (or not) when it comes to Southern susceptibilities regarding race and gender. And then there’s young Deirdre Yates, astonishingly beautiful and with her own secrets and pressures, and there’s retired oilman Jimmy Hightower, who deliberately built his big new house just down the road from Byrd’s, hoping some of his idol’s writing talent would rub off. And there’s Jimmy’s wife, Esther, an Oklahoma Jew, who lives in terror of what Hitler might do. All of these people exist in four or five dimensions and their individual stories — which Adams lets the reader in on a little at a time, like real life — will keep you reading steadily until you finish the book. And you will wish there was more.

Adams tosses out little observations that make you pause and think: Yes. Like, two people approaching middle age, on a stroll across a small college campus, who stop and sit on the steps in front of the library among a group of students, because it makes them “feel young by contagion.” Or, at a party, Cynthia observes, “Have you noticed how Southerners get more and more Southern as they drink? So interesting.” Wow. That’s a great ear. There’s also the nighttime torchlight parade through Pinehill that precedes the college’s upcoming game against Duke, which frightens Abby and she doesn’t know why. But the reader can imagine similar parades featuring swastikas taking place at that very moment — and perhaps similarly sinister torchlight gatherings not so many years earlier in the South that ended with lynchings. None of this is made explicit but if you pay attention, it’s there.

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Published in: on 8 May 2011 at 6:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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