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Books: End As a Fairy Tale

3 minute read

ETERNAL FIRE (630 pp.) — Colder Willingham—Vanguard ($6.95).

At one end of the astonishing spectrum of Southern novelists there is Faulkner. He loved the land’s dark soil and, in a rueful way, its people. Toward the middle of the range is a large group of writers for whom the South is merely a neutral, abundant earth to be walked on and, where it is interesting, written about. At the spectrum’s other extremity are a few novelists to whom the South itself is a vast, febrile malevolence. Among these, on the evidence of Eternal Fire, is Calder Willingham, 40, a Georgia expatriate who now lives in New Hampshire.

Little Flowers. The scent of youthful bitterness suffuses the sarcastic prose bouquet with which Willingham opens the novel: “In this peaceful land . . . the summer sun is a fiery furnace; it boils the blood, cooks the brain, and spreads a fever in the bones. But that same fearful orb, in collaboration with the sweet rain generated by its power, makes the little flowers grow.”

In this long, mocking novel those little flowers are hero and heroine: Randolph Sudderland Shepherdson III, a rich, stupendously naive, goodhearted young man; and his fiancee, Laurie Mae Lytle, a beautiful, innocent, saintly young schoolteacher. They will be blissfully happy, living on love and Randy’s $50,000-a-year income from his inheritance.

But already evil is stirring—like a chick buzzard, in the author’s fondly turned simile, already pecking its way through its shell. Chief evildoer is Randy’s guardian, wicked Judge Ball. Under the terms of the will, Randy comes into full control of his money when he marries. The judge would find this awkward because he has stolen most of the money.

Satyr & Dwarf. Then to ensure that wedding bells will not toll, the judge imports a snake-eyed satyr named Harry Diadem. Harry is 25 and has scored, as he puts it, with 603 different women since puberty. He is confident that Laurie Mae will be 604.

The buzzard is now full-grown and he flaps up an enormous storm. Also whirling about in the tornado are a superhumanly powerful dwarf who lurks in treetops and confuses Laurie Mae with his dead mother; an ex-cop who loves Jesus, liquor and sleeping with daughter, but not in that order; and a skinny blackmailer with a fat tootsie named Sugar Dolly.

After several violent deaths, sundry fornications and an inventively rigged court trial, Author Willingham brings the book to its crowning mockery, a happy ending. The little flowers, pushing up through the mulch of Willingham’s Faulkner parodies, Truman Capote parodies and Carson McCullers parodies, nod prettily to each other.

Unfortunately, none of the characters and none of their predicaments ever approach anything real; the only reality in this witty, bitter novel is the author’s dislike of the South. But Willingham is a skillful as well as a bitter man, and for a while he makes that reality seem enough.

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