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Delta blues

The End of California A Novel Steve Yarbrough Alfred A. Knopf: 308 pp., $23.95

July 23, 2006|Roy Hoffman | Roy Hoffman is a staff writer for the Press-Register in Mobile, Ala. His most recent novel, "Chicken Dreaming Corn," about a Jewish immigrant family in early 1900s Alabama, was recently released in paperback.

THE fictional town of Loring, Miss., in the state's northwestern Delta region, provides the contemporary landscape for Steve Yarbrough's fourth novel, "The End of California," as it did for his earlier novels, "Visible Spirits," set in the early 20th century, and "Prisoners of War," a World War II home-front story. Yarbrough's first novel, "The Oxygen Man," takes place on similar terrain. All are inspired by the author's hometown of Indianola, Miss.

In the tradition of William Faulkner's transmutation of his corner of rural Mississippi into Yoknapatawpha County, the Fresno-based author intends to find, in repeated visits to Loring, a microcosm for the world. "When you had lived in the same town almost all your life," Yarbrough writes of a character's visit to a fast-food joint, "every single inch of it was layered, strata topping substrata, reaching as far back as the moment when you first became aware you were anywhere at all."

To these substrata, Yarbrough introduces the troubled, yet appealing, Pete Barrington, a native son who went west on a football scholarship to Fresno State and returns, at 42, a doctor with secrets to hide and a family spinning out of control.

Like his literary and actual predecessors who left Mississippi for the golden horizon -- Faulkner's Quentin Compson to Harvard, Willie Morris to New York in his memoir "North Toward Home," Beth Henley's Meg to Hollywood in the play "Crimes of the Heart" -- Pete finds both allure and peril in the world beyond. He returns home seeking a safe haven. Things change, though. He realizes that his daughter will never be seen as a hometown girl by her Loring classmates: "she'd be the girl from California ... she'd be reduced to the place she came from, a fifteen-year-old girl who'd stand for bright lights, wide highways, blue water, white sand and a permissive attitude toward chaos."

The West Coast and the Deep South -- and the perceptions each region has of the other -- act as a fulcrum for this novel. Pete's childhood nemesis, Alan DePoyster, is the dutiful grocer who never left the Delta, who goes to church regularly and who wears a red-white-and-blue bowtie in memory of Sept. 11. Pete's wife, Angela, a moody and complex California sophisticate, colonizes her corner of Mississippi with Pete's childhood friend, Tim Kessler, a divorced, alcoholic lawyer whose heat and tenderness she much welcomes. The California girl-Mississippi boy romance between Pete's daughter, Toni, and Alan's son, Mason, kicks up anger for their fathers, long at odds over old transgressions.

Yarbrough has a keen ear for the nuances of Southern speech and a fine command of details in scenes set in places such as Pete's medical office, where patients stream in with various ailments, and the high school football field, where Loring versus Yazoo City stirs up as much interest as a major bowl game. The author also has a sharp eye for changes in the cultural landscape: King Cotton has been displaced by catfish farming, googling has joined gossiping as a way to root out secrets and Loring's first black police chief feels more contempt from black gang members than from dyed-in-the-wool white racists.

Beginning in the spirit of "The Last Picture Show," with its theme of a community's intimacy matched by its claustrophobia -- Pete calls the Larry McMurtry book "the last word on life in a small town" -- "The End of California" shifts abruptly into the terrain of "Crime and Punishment." Indeed, the Methodist minister, Wade Phelps, says to Alan of the Bible: "You have to read it like a Dostoyevsky novel."

Despite Yarbrough's novelistic gifts, he sometimes manipulates the narrative to self-conscious effect. Alan is at the dark heart of "The End of California," a role -- tightly wound guy about to explode -- occupied by Marty Stark, the combat soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress in "Prisoners of War." Whereas that book seemed to have a plot that rose organically from the material, this novel has some of its workmanship showing. People's paths cross in unlikely ways; coincidences arise. The mystery of Pete Barrington and his California troubles becomes obscured by the detective story that takes over as the police chief puts his energies into finding the perpetrator of a savage crime.

In "Visible Spirits" and "Prisoners of War," the well-meaning folks of Loring often found themselves caught between the tectonic plates of history -- the end of slavery and the drama of race relations in "Spirits," the glory and anguish of heroic loss during World War II in "Prisoners," about German POWs sent to Mississippi to work the cotton fields -- but the damage to the residents of 21st century Loring is done largely by themselves.

The sweep of history -- and the interchange with the wider, more complicated world -- feels ever more distant in this novel. Even as Loring's map has expanded through hundreds of pages of textured prose, the town has grown smaller. The ruin now comes from within, the plagues brought down on residents by their own deceit, hypocrisy and old-fashioned boredom. When Alan prays, after a joyless attempt to make love to his wife, "Please lift me above myself," it could be the new mantra for the residents of the town.

Ultimately, "The End of California" makes a compelling if melancholy addition to Yarbrough's exploration of his home turf. While the characters vary, his four novels can be read as an engaging whole. It gives away no secrets to say that Pete decides he's moved back to Mississippi for good. Maybe the time has come, by contrast, for Yarbrough to leave Loring and turn his considerable talents to a fresh locale. *

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