Janet Burroway's new novel, Bridge of Sand, is about many things: race, love, sex, grief, sinkholes, hurricanes, 9/11, dangerous secrets. But it may be most of all about how hard it is to find our heart's home.
Burroway is a prolific and masterful writer who has published dozens of novels, short stories, poems, plays and essays, as well as one of the most widely used creative writing textbooks, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. She is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita of Florida State University, where she taught for 30 years.
Bridge of Sand, Burroway's first novel in 16 years, begins with death. On the way to the funeral of her politician husband, Dana Ullman watches a pillar of smoke rise from a Pennsylvania field, not realizing its connection to "the collapsing towers on their TV screens not two hours ago." It's Sept. 11, 2001, and Dana finds herself an "incidental widow — her experience, whatever it would have been, shunted aside by the general catastrophe."
Her grief is also muffled by its familiarity. Abandoned as a child by a restlessly romantic mother, then left an orphan by her father's death, Dana married in haste, fell out of love, buried a newborn daughter and resolved to divorce her husband only to be stopped in her tracks when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer at 40.
All this is covered in Bridge of Sand's first chapter — the ground that lets us understand Dana's first reaction of emotional paralysis. A dawning sense of just how broke her husband left her pushes her to act: Sell all the stuff, put the house on the market and motor out of town.
Dana's childhood was spent on the road; her most vivid memories are framed by the back window of a Chevy Malibu. But she does have a snapshot of her grandmother's house in Brunswick, Ga., where she lived for a while, so that's where she heads.
Dana finds she really can't go home again — the house has been replaced by a strip mall. But she seizes on an odd notion, the memory of a boy she worked with at the nearby grocery 20 years ago. They hardly knew one another, not only because of teenage shyness: She was white, he was black.
But she has a small, happy memory of him, and it impels her, for no reason she can articulate, to look Cassius Huston up in the phone book.
Soon they are meeting on a nearby beach for a steamy slow dance of flirtation that spins into a hungry affair carried out in hotel rooms along the shore.
As Dana's acerbic friend Phoebe tells her, "Your heart gets captured and your mind goes to sleep." It never seems to occur to Dana that a married-but-separated man offered sex by a near stranger might not be entirely forthcoming about his relationship with his wife, or that the difference between her materially comfortable life and his as a paper mill security guard might be a source of tension.
She also thinks she and Cassius can simply span the chasm of race with their bodies, that the great divide of American culture can be healed with kisses. Although she worries about the racist reaction of surly white teenage boys, she is utterly dumbfounded when Cassius' family is outraged by his affair with a white woman.
That outrage pushes her onto the road again, heading for Pelican Bay, a tiny town in the "armpit of Florida," along the gulf coast south of Tallahassee. Cassius has told her his aunt lives there, and Dana believes he will follow her even though he has sworn he won't leave his toddler daughter behind.
Dana lands at Solly's Corner, an old-school establishment that serves as grocery, bait shop, gas station and meeting place for the two neighborhoods along either side of Sink Street: one white, one black. Solly, the proprietor, is a crusty old white guy who rents her a cabin, takes a shine to her and, to her surprise, puts her to work.
At first she pines for Cassius, indulging "the midlife resurrection of some ineluctable adolescent yearning." But then Solly hurls her into the center of Pelican Bay's emotional life in a fashion she never could have anticipated. Dana finds herself caught between Adena, a voracious real estate agent who was married to Solly's nephew, and her gorgeous Goth daughter, Bernadette, on one side, and Trudy, Cassius' aunt, on the other.
Dana also deals with natural disasters, children lost and found and an exploding piano before she's done, but she finds a bigger frame of reference than that car window.
"We can't imagine each other, Dana thought. We can hardly imagine a landscape we haven't seen, a face twenty years older, the texture of the moon — let alone the triune, bihemispheric intricacies of a human brain. But we have to try."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.