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The Gentle Spiral of a Southern Sentence : THE LAST OF HOW IT WAS by T.R. Pearson (Linden Press / Simon & Schuster: $17.95; 339 pp.)

October 04, 1987|Frank Levering

No one alive, certainly no one in his native South, is writing quite like T. R. Pearson, the 31-year-old novelist whose first novel, "A Short History of a Small Place," published in 1985, went off like a literary firecracker. With the publication of "Off for the Sweet Hereafter," his second novel, and now "The Last of How It Was," a novel that completes a trilogy set in the fictional little town of Neely, N.C., Tom Pearson's status as an American original is confirmed. The work, the regional voice are something new in our literature; a mixed success, at best, but very much Pearson's own--and very dimly understood thus far by Pearson's literary critics, Southern as well as "Yankee."

To be sure, "The Last of How It Was" does remind us--inevitably, for a young Southern writer Under the Influence--of Faulkner. Like the Master, Pearson translates the vaunted Southern art of oral storytelling into the rhetoric of fiction. Like Faulkner, Pearson writes sentences like a man peeling an apple in a single seamless stroke, the peel coiling and stretching out like an endless snake. Witness this account of a Christian funeral for a mule: "He did not know just what he would pray for but set out nonetheless with a kind of all-purpose petition followed by more silence while the Rev. Mr. Tilley endeavored to settle in his own mind whether it was proper and prudent to pray for the deliverance of a mule into the kingdom of heaven, and since he knew from Uncle Jack it had not been a wicked or ill-tempered creature, he decided likely it was proper and prudent in this instance at least somewhat and so he did pray for the deliverance of plain Spud into the kingdom of heaven and got Amened twice by colored Uncle Lucas and Amened once apiece by Aunt Della and Uncle Jack who did not usually Amen in the course of a prayer but figured since Uncle Lucas had they would too."

But Pearson is not Faulkner, not even a comedic one, as some would have him. In "The Last of How It Was," Pearson's comedy once again is gentle, infinitely polite, unabashedly fond of his characters; he avoids at all cost the ferocious, Darwinian edge that Faulkner brought even to his comedy.

Nor is Pearson Mark Twain, though he has read his Twain carefully. Returning from "A Short History of a Small Place" is Pearson's teen-age narrator Louis Benfield, whose irony and diction invite the inevitable comparison with Huck Finn. But Twain's comic vision was dark, deeply unsettling; as comically myopic or inept as they are, Pearson's characters are essentially tranquil, acquiescent creatures, not long disturbed by mere calamity.

In "The Last of How It Was," Pearson again is Pearson, only more so. This time, rather than continuing to profile the eccentric citizens of Neely, young Louis Benfield trains on the even more outlandish members of his own family, interweaving various misadventures from the Civil War to the present. A mule dies when an uncle cuts a tree down on top of him; a liquor-making neighbor is blamed for a man's impotence and nearly castrated; an ancestor mistakenly shoots his commander, Stonewall Jackson, at the battle of Chancellorsville. Pearson's familiar anecdotal structure, his full command of a laugh-out-loud comic arsenal--satire, farce, parody--remain in evidence. And, as before, the joke just might be on those damn Yankees--particularly the literary critics in places like New York who will write in high tone that Pearson has captured the backwoods South as they know it really is, its folk ways, speech rhythms, eccentricity.

Pearson knows better--or ought to. His genius--no less in "The Last of How It Was" than in his previous works--is for comic exaggeration, a backwoods form of tall tale as American as Mark Twain. Like Twain himself, Pearson draws from a rich folk culture, concocting hyperbolic events narrated in sly, understated language. The effect is deliciously comic.

But Neely is literary, not sociological--a world strictly imagined. Few Southern Christians bury their mules with a funeral service, but the notion is hilarious, a frothy parody of excess piety. And no contemporary teen-ager in North Carolina talks like Louis Benfield, with his strange hybrid of sophistication and backwardness, his breathless sentences that run to an implausibly standard length, his polyglot of bad grammar and "literary" words, his archaic expressions that are sometimes lifted right out of Mark Twain. But, curiously--or perhaps not so curiously--much of this bizarre narration comes off. It is simply too entertaining to be resisted.

Though he has not yet learned how to unify his novels, to construct an aesthetic and thematic whole from his material, Pearson offers an original comic vision from the Piedmont region of the Southeast, a large American subculture that is not the Deep South, not the coastal or mountain South--a place so polite it continues to escape notice. Like Garrison Keillor's more wistful comedy, Pearson's is rooted in a particular place, a culture in which acquiescence to life rather than protest, modesty rather than the search for glory, and a penchant for self- and family parody are the norms. Like Keillor, Pearson has invented his own world, nurtured by a culture steeped in the narrative embellishments of the front porch. For those who have not yet met him, Pearson is still out on the porch swing, spinning yarns.

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