Southern Light

2 minute read
Martha Duffy




THE BOTTOM LINE: A slow, sly mint julep of a novel.

THEY MAY HAVE LOST THE CIVIL War, but in writing, Southerners often have a sublime authority that allows them to triumph even over thin or attenuated material. Take New Orleans-born Nancy Lemann, for example. Her new novel is very much like her first, the much praised Lives of the Saints (1985). In that book a gently bred young woman lives out a hopeless love for a charming drunk named Claude Collier. Not much plot there, but the story is peopled with New Orleans madcaps and eccentrics who go to parties that the author describes with just the right blend of romance and wit.

Sportsman’s Paradise is set in the sleepy Long Island resort of Orient Point, which has been discovered by Southerners who have moved North. This time the heroine is a Collier herself, and she carries a torch for a moody chap named Hobby Fox. She thinks of him as a burnt-out case — “courtly and windblown and stoic” — but in his 36 years he has been a major-league ballplayer, a New Orleans prosecutor and the foreign editor of an important New York City newspaper. What story there is gradually reveals the couple’s past affair and tells why a heartless decision made five years earlier blights any chance for happiness now.

The pleasures of reading Lemann lie in her sure characterization and limpid style. If she has heard of Freud, she keeps it to herself. Her people, whether brisk and dignified or drunk and disorderly, are presented as distinct personalities whose actions, however odd, are inevitable and to be accepted. Little Al, age three, is impossibly wise. Margaret, from Memphis, is more than disorderly and is locked up regularly. But she is also “a glamour girl and old-style Southern belle.” When the vignettes threaten to stretch credibility, Lemann unerringly interweaves a little writing just for its own sake, perhaps a nature sketch about “the rustling of the leaves, the waning light on the bay . . . the swans on the green lagoon. The drama of the twilight.” Such is the light in her book.

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