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Derring-do in a Land Without Spice : BRIGHTEN THE CORNER WHERE YOU ARE by Fred Chappell (St. Martin's Press: $15.95; 212 pp.)

September 17, 1989|Harry Middleton | Middleton is the author of "The Earth Is Enough" (Simon & Schuster) and the forthcoming "Dancing on the Spine of Time" (Simon & Schuster)

His name is Joe Robert Kirkman. He is a science teacher at the Tipton high school in the mountains of North Carolina and he is in big trouble.

Kirkman is a man who likes to push life, feel it completely, live it fully. He delights in risks and challenge, in all that life is--its great joys, its telling tragedies, its promise and potential. Admirable characteristics, you would think, especially for a high school science teacher, but Kirkman's exuberance for life has gotten him, at last, into more trouble than he can handle. Perhaps.

In this deeply felt, warm, and funny novel, Fred Chappell, one of the South's and indeed the country's finest writers, introduces us to a character whose passion for life, for the hardness of truth, changes not only his life, but the lives of those around him.

Chappell's narrative, told by young Jess, Kirkman's son (Chappell readers will remember Jess from the novel "I Am One of You Forever"), probes close to bone and nerve, giving us a telling portrait not only of Joe Robert Kirkman, but of life in the small mountain town of Tipton just at the end of World War II.

As this single day in the life of Kirkman unravels so does the life of Tipton, in all its darkness and promise. Chappell, a master storyteller, weaves a wonderful tale, one full of wild humor and honest humanity, all of it surfacing in but a single day in a man's life.

It is, however, no ordinary day, but then Kirkman is no ordinary science teacher. Besides being a teacher, Kirkman is a farmer, an outdoorsman, something of a philosopher, and a most inventive and imaginative dreamer. In a place "so lacking in spice," he is a man of "derring-do." Tipton, N.C., is a town in need of a jolt of passion and Kirkman is just the man to deliver the blow. Kirkman can feel it's time to make his mark on life: "His glory days were coming. He could feel the bright glow of them on his face like a rising dawn."

Kirkman's less than traditional teaching methods, especially concerning his handling of Darwin and the theory of evolution, have landed him in hot water with the local school board which has called a special session. Kirkman is to appear before them, explain himself. But things aren't going well for Kirkman. His day and his life seem star-struck. The day begins with Kirkman in the deep mountain night up a tree battling what he calls a devil-opossum (a bobcat) and getting the worst of the encounter; saving a drowning child in Trivet Creek and ruining his only suit in the process; meeting a ghost in the school's basement, and trying to coax a philosophical goat off the high school's roof and losing. And so on. By the time of his meeting with the school board, it seems Joe Robert Kirkman is indeed doomed.

But sometimes things work out, even if it takes a little magic, and it does here, but Chappell, a novelist and poet of great range and talent, handles it with great humor and grace, making it magic of the best sort: not just possible, but believable.

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