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OFF FOR THE Sweet Hereafter by T. R. Pearson (Linden/Simon & Schuster: $16.95; 289 pp.)

June 15, 1986| Fred Chappell | Chappell is writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina , Greensboro. and

"Off for the Sweet Hereafter" iR. Pearson's second novel, and one of the funniest books I have read in a long time. The publisher seems intent on pushing it as a Bonnie and Clyde shoot-'em-up. Perhaps there is some small justification for that, since the book is sporadically violent, but it is rather like selling Krazy Kat as a serious study of mayhem.

Violence is not the primary focus, as it could hardly be in a book that spends its first 30 pages recounting an attempt to retrieve a misflung newspaper from a house roof. It is true that in this story, Benton Lynch is led by Elizabeth Jane Firesheets to his arch and mordant destiny. "Shots are fired," as the author puts it. But the main purpose of the novel is to examine and expose without pity small-town life and small-town sensibility in the American South.

Actually, sensibility is too grand a word. Every single one of the characters here is as unreflective, confused, and aimless as Benton Lynch, the feckless and taciturn protagonist. Nothing is too trivial to absorb the utmost attention, neither buying vanilla pudding cups in a grocery store nor describing in detail exactly the sort of seamless aluminum guttering they have conceived a passion for.

Pearson's method then is caricature, breathless unstinting exaggeration. Yet "Off for the Sweet Hereafter" is convincing, and, in fact, the more the author exaggerates, the more he convinces. Probably this is so because there is an unmistakable bedrock of fond affection beneath the ironic surface. Hapless and brainless as his characters are, Pearson likes them. He finds in the very boredom of his locale a source of humorous amazement.

It is almost unfair to give a sample of the style of the book because nearly any one of its sentences could use up most of our review space. Pearson has chosen to cast his prose in the manner of one way of Southern talking. The sentences are illogical, randomly inclusive, and well nigh endless. For the most part, this style is happily successful, but now and then, the rich colloquialism thins out into mere typewriting. On Page 170, for example, two prize-winners stand side by side, sentences as stretched out and repetitive as a wallpaper design.

Still, I cannot resist quoting this passage in which Sheriff Burton tries to talk to his landlady about a recent armed robbery, a subject in which she has not even a tepid interest.

"The sheriff figured the assailant for a product of socio-economic depravity, a father maybe, a husband surely, and likely laid off from the cigarette plant or the brewery outside Eden or the cotton mill or the quarry at Stokesdale. It was the sheriff's opinion that Mr. Busick had not been in much danger of getting shot . . . and the sheriff imagined the money would go for necessities, food, clothing and such. But, the sheriff said, and this was the part where he shook his finger, a man's got no right to rob and plunder even to clothe and feed his wife and his little ones. A man's got no right to lawlessness, the sheriff said . . . and Mrs. Messick, who had not Um Hmmed or I seed or Oh reallyed for a prominent while, left off with her peach half, waved the pointy end of her fork at the sheriff, and told him she had a niece in Stokesdale who made the most exquisite baby blankets and booties and little knit hats, and the sheriff said 'Socio-economic depravity pure and simple,' and Mrs. Messick told him, 'And scarves too, fuzzy little scarves with tiny tassels.' "

The whole novel goes along in this vein, lazily digressive, intensely local. The pages are liberally freckled with North Carolina place names: Wendell, Garner, Merry Oaks, Zebulon--and Fuquay-Varina, where Pearson resides.

There is a story about his hometown, inconsequential and utterly irrelevant, and yet it may provide an index to the tenor of this novel. A New Jersey couple traveling on Highway 401 come to the city limits and find the sign with its compound name, FUQUAY-VARINA. They fall to arguing about how to pronounce it and decide to seek aid from a certifiable native. They pull into a roadside Burger King, and when the waitress brings coffee, the man says, "Please, miss, could you tell us how to pronounce the name of this place? And could you say it slowly? We've had difficulty understanding Southern accents." And the waitress, with complaisant and soulful earnestness, leans over the table and drawls: "Bur. Ger. King."

We Southerners refer to novels like this one as Grit Lit and have developed a real taste for the stuff. I believe that anyone who samples "Off for the Hearafter" will understand why.

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