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Book Reviews : Ruby Camp Shows Plenty of Promise

December 14, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

A Place With Promise by Edward Swift (Doubleday: $16.95; 264 pages)

The "place with promise" here is East Texas, down along the banks of the Sabine River, but Edward Swift's novel "sees" his place the way J. G. Ballard's "Empire of the Sun" conjured wartime Shanghai, or Hiber Conteras (writing from his South American jail) envisioned Southern California when he created "Ten Percent of Life." These are places where geography scarcely pertains; where imagination informs and infuses every written word with brilliance.

Swift is on the second of what should be an elegant series of novels about the way Americans used to be, and sometimes, sneakily, still are. His earlier "Splendora" examined life in a Texas small town--population 1,700--along the Sabine.

But even a town the size of Splendora must have a countryside to compare itself to, so in this second novel, Swift creates Ruby Camp, a little throw-together huddle of unpainted, ramshackle houses, perching very precariously on a sandbank above that same Sabine River, and just adjacent to a sand bar, a place that's home to a pleasing sorceress named Navasota and a couple of rural lovers who populate their small world with so many pale-skinned children that the place ends up known as Albino Island. And, in this tale, for many years the occupants of Ruby Camp and Albino Island live happy lives, even as industrial America grows up around them.

Exercise in Imagination

One character in "A Place of Promise" spends, like so many good ladies of the American South, a lot of time on tracing her ancestors, and the reader might well do the same thing with this book. Besides being an exercise in "imagination," the "supernatural," the "magic past" and everything that all of that means, this is also a river novel in the sense that "Tom Sawyer," "Huckleberry Finn," "Sometimes a Great Notion" and "Deliverance" are river novels.

All these stories, by nature of the watery ribbon that winds through them, contain in their very structure the sense that our lives are bigger than we are, that life itself is largely uncontrollable and filled with extraordinary beauty, if only we have eyes to see that. For that reason, and many others, "A Place with Promise" is a dignified, stately, intelligent book--everything a novel should be.

This lengthy preamble is necessary, I think, because if one just began naming off the characters and recounting the plot here, the cautious, would-be reader might head for the hills. Were it not for the craft of the author, this story could easily evolve into quaintness-run-mad, rural insanity, a soggy plum pudding of Southern goo. But Swift's strong characters stand pat.

Elizabeth (Bessie) Treadway, who catches herself a husband by standing in the shallows of the Sabine, embracing three pet cranes and whistling one enchanted note across the water, is perfectly realized. And Isaac Overstreet, her taciturn mate who fishes for a living, repopulates his river by throwing carved wooden fish back in and converses with a genuine angel whose wings are wearing out. Isaac is a perfect husband, kind man and totally believeable straight down the line.

Bessie eventually gives birth to identical twin girls so much alike that they end up--after much haggling--sharing the same name, the Ruby-Jewels. Those Ruby-Jewels drive everyone in Ruby Camp absolutely nuts because they share not only the same name but the same brain. Together they court a young asthmatic boy named Peter Faircloth who keels over in a dead faint every time they pinch and kiss him. Pretty soon, though, the happy threesome set up housekeeping together, and become local celebrities, winning first prize three years in a row when they enter crazy quilts in the tri-county fair.

Sweet Romance

There's another sweet romance here--that long liaison between a mentally retarded boy who's been told so often that he "ain't nothing at all," that he discovers a place, a counter-universe, a "nothing at all" that is his very own. He courts the local charming slut, and ends up patriarch of Albino Island.

But mostly there's the Sabine River itself, a world that changes in every separate enchanted moment. When the Ruby-Jewel twins take Peter Faircloth out in a boat to calm his frenzied nerves: "The world was misty that morning. The water was calm and pearly gray, and when the sun tried to burn through the clouds, the river sparkled like a stream of opals." Other times the Sabine runs dark red. But finally, "the water was silver, like tinfoil, all crumpled up and flattened out again."

The Sabine offers a world of magic, an alternate way of seeing and living. And "modern times" or not, that way continues. There are always, in the world of this novel, those who choose to live on these banks and--even after having experienced the dubious pleasures of gravel driveways and shiny Buicks--choose to return to Ruby Camp where life is a dream, and time flows by like a necklace of twinkling gems.

"A Place of Promise" is a sweet and lovely book.

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