I am kind of a stickler about reading a series in order. There is just something that compels me to read books in the order they were written, particularly if there are repeating characters. I have some fear of missing something; of not getting a reference or joke. So when I received an advanced copy of Glad News of the Natural World by T.R. Pearson and noted that it was a sequel to A Short History of a Small Place (albeit one interrupted by twenty years) I felt I needed to start at the beginning.
So I went to the library and checked it out. What I found was a slightly rambling, rather quirky, humorous tale of life in a small town. There isn’t a plot so much as as a series of stories and episodes. The writing meanders but is evocative and comic; and light on the punctuation. All in all, I found it to be a memorable – and at times hilarious – example of Southern storytelling.
The narrator of this rambling tale is Louis Benfield, a teenager in Neely, North Carolina. Benfield narrates the story in the first person, but much of the information and anecdotes come from his Dad and other Neelyites. As a result, the story reads much like a conversation on the front porch. The central focus of the story is Miss Myra Angelique Pettigrew, the former wealthy and beautiful belle of Neely now a lonely spinster. Like any story told on the front porch or across the fence, telling this tale involves a lot of side stories and the introduction of a host of central and secondary characters. What Benfield end ups relating is not so much the life of Miss Pettigrew, although she is heavily involved, but the history of Neely – hence the title. What make it so remarkable is how real and touching Pearson makes his fictional world despite its often outrageous and comic nature.
I often found myself laughing out loud or chuckling to myself. Having grown up in small towns, albeit in the Midwest, during roughly the same time, I felt I could relate to the world Pearson is describing. He has a way of capturing and describing the foibles and oddities of human nature; of communicating that voice in his characters. The innocence and honest bluntness of Louis is a perfect example. He isn’t naive exactly but he hasn’t succumbed to the ugly cynicism of many adults. He is still able to find joy in everyday life.
The one problem I had with the book was its never ending stream of consciousness style. Part of this comes from being an impatient reader. I tend to want to read too fast and often rush. With so many book in my pile this has been exacerbated lately. But it also comes from the near run-on-sentence style of Pearson. At times his lack of punctuation forced me to read a sentence over to make sure I got the meaning correct. If you have lost of free time to leisurely read this is not a problem. But if you are using it for bedtime reading, for example, the fact that there are very few chapters or other natural stopping spots makes it feel like a long read at times. The stories and anecdotes are by turns touching, funny, and insightful but in spots you wonder if you are getting anywhere.
If you are looking for tight writing and a clear plot, a Small Place isn’t for you. But if you enjoy evocative descriptions that seem to perfectly capture the idiosyncrasies of small – particularly southern – town life, and tenderly skewer their conventions, then you will enjoy Pearson. Like life in the South, the point isn’t necessarily where you are going but that you enjoy yourself along the way. I certainly did.