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The Afternoon-ness of the Civilized South : COLONEL EFFINGHAM'S RAID by Berry Fleming (Second Chance Press: $18.95; 279 pp.) : SIESTA by Berry Fleming (Second Chance Press: $19.95; 345 pp.)

January 31, 1988|Fred Chappell | Chappell's latest book is "The Fred Chappell Reader." and

Second Chance Press earns its name by reprinting works of worth and distinction that have fallen into neglect and out of print. The editors of the Press have taken a particular liking to Berry Fleming, a novelist now 88 years old who lives in Augusta, Ga. In addition to "Colonel Effingham's Raid" and "Siesta," Second Chance will also reissue two other Fleming titles.

Almost any dedicated reader of books has a list of authors he longs to see brought back to wide notice and enjoyment. My own list would include such names as William Goyen, Frank Waters, David Stacton, and Andrew Lytle, but Fleming is not a bad choice. He is a Southern novelist who is able to treat his material with humor and detachment, even when--as in "Siesta"--it is darkened by sexual confusion and violence. He shows a gift for wit as well as for broader humor, a delicate eye for detail, a keen eye for nuance of manners.

In short, he may seem a Southern writer only by accident of geography, because many people think of the Southern novel only in terms of guilt, blood, and high temperature weirdness, remembering Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O'Connor, and Cormac MacCarthy. But there is another honorable tradition of Southern fiction that owes less to Poe and Melville than to Henry James; it is practiced by such sure talents as Peter Taylor, Elizabeth Spencer, Caroline Gordon, and Candace Flynt, and relies not on melodrama but upon close observation and analysis and sympathetic humor. These latter writers produce the literature of the civilized South.

One would think that the civilized South is long gone, since its passing is the major theme of "Colonel Effingham's Raid," first published in 1943, and a secondary theme of "Siesta," which first saw light in 1935. In the former novel, W. Seaborn Effingham, colonel U.S. Army, retired, returns to his hometown of Fredericksville, Ga., after a solid if not stellar military career. He finds that the government of the town has fallen into the hands of a complacently corrupt group of low-grade politicians, whose careless handling of finances and callous treatment of tradition have put in danger of destruction the town's finest historical landmark, its courthouse. The doughty colonel sets out to save the building from a fate worse than decay. The resemblance of this plot to the latter reels of "Birth of a Nation" is deliberate parody; we are to think of the courthouse as an unsullied daughter of the Confederacy and of the opportunistic developers as brutal rapists, their desecration made the more horrifying because they too are Southerners and traitors to the cause.

Such material offers easy chances for broad burlesque, but Fleming has subtler purposes in mind. The story is told by a jaded nephew of the colonel, Albert Marbury, who views his uncle as a ridiculous figure and foresees a reign of terror "when integrity starts running amuck." He is one of those people who can recognize the craziness of Don Quixote but cannot see his nobility.

"Siesta" is a less effective book than "Raid" because its canvas is broader, as are its strategies. In 1935, reviewers compared it to Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street" because of its attempt to draw a satiric portrait of a small Southern town in all its aspects. But "Siesta," with its brief scenes, headline montages, its multitude of sketchy characters, and its now quaint essays at being shockingly modern about sex, will remind us more strongly of Aldous Huxley. "Siesta" is not a bad novel, but it is no better than hundreds of others that won't be getting a second chance.

Yet there is a way in which "Siesta" makes a good complement to "Raid." It shows the writer's grasp of background and his ability to draw a variety of characters; the picture the novel presents is convincing, but it is not exactly fascinating. One brilliant phrase in "Siesta" gives us the whole tone of Fleming's South: "The afternoon-ness of everything."

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