Recent fiction based in Florida always seems to take place in or around Miami with only occasional forays to the rest of the state. Now at last are two novels of exceptional quality that draw their inspiration from northern Florida, from a Florida not of gangsters and con men, but of cracker farm boys, pickup trucks and southern myths spilling over from neighboring Georgia: William Tester's Darling (Alfred A. Knopf, $20) and Connie May Fowler's Sugar Cage (Putnam, $19.95).
Tester lives in New York City but he grew up on a farm in Florida. Fowler, who also grew up in Florida, lives in St. Augustine. Their styles couldn't be more diverse, but each has accomplished what every writer dreams to do. They have told compelling stories with such unique voices that their words continue to resonate long after the last page is turned.
The narrative voice in Tester's novel is a wildly lyrical one, a voice trapped inside the head of one who painfully is remembering every emotion experienced during the emotionally explosive experience of childhood. Bub's memory, sparked by the visit of an older brother for whom he has always felt an intense rivalry, turns over and over on itself, piling up images as in a dream. He rummages through his mind the way he once rummaged through the drawer of his Mama's "perfumed-cluttered bureau" filled with "mussy scarves .
. dim and tangled cocoa hose."
Bub and his brother Jaeb grew up "poor as yard dirt" on a Florida farm where Bub learns harsh lessons in love. Years later on leave from the Navy, Jaeb visits his brother in New York, "speaking across the tablecloth from me, through cans and cigarettes and litter, past our trash-surrounded years," Bub tells us. Also on that table is Bub's gun.
Despite that prop, however, this is not a thriller. Bub commits fratricide, but it is not a literal killing. Instead he tries to come to terms with his past, with a Mama who was distant and a Daddy who was abusive, with a brother he loathes, and with the unbearable isolation of his childhood. He seeks warmth and love where he can find it.
Some will be put off by the central metaphor in this novel: Darling, the object of Bub's youthful lust, is a cow. Tester's choice, however bizarre, is strangely apt though, and Bub's scenes with Darling are surprisingly moving. Particularly grand in this novel though is the mesmerizing language he uses to conjure up not only the images of the past but even its smells:
"The heavy smell of Mama and Daddy is like the smell of hangered clothes, of dampened collars, and of darkened, closet smells. A spongy, spraycan, laundry smell of something powdery and lead. A wall of Mama's smell wells up above my Mama and Daddy's bed _ of Mama's hair, or of a towel that has been used, of talc, and then my Daddy's thinner smell is under hers. Daddy's smell is bitter; it lingers edged and orange peelish, sweated, lifting from their bed."
Tester's dreamy (and nightmarish) recollections by novel's end wear thin, but they convinced me I was in the presence of a major talent who certainly bears watching.
Even more impressive is the debut of Fowler, whose Sugar Cage already has invited comparisons with such writers as Zora Neale Hurston. Using nine distinct narrators in alternating chapters, Fowler never sounds a false note, but moves confidently among them all: black and white, men and women, young and old. From the cacophony of voices (which include a macho husband, a long-suffering wife, a misunderstood boy, a dying father, a confused mother, a stuttering little girl, a voodoo priestess, a black maid and a funeral director) emerges a seamless story of loss and salvation.
Fowler's characters also are trying to deal with their past. Rose Looney struggles to cope with the death of her husband Charlie, who banished their son Emory to work in the sugar cane fields in southern Florida. Eudora Jewel, unable to deal with the death of her husband Junior, gives herself up to many lovers and abandons her daughter Luella in the process. Soleil Marie Beauvoir, who meets Emory in the fields _ where they fall in love, must deal with her own abandonment by the father of her child. And the maid, Inez Temple, fights daily against the loss of dignity the white world tries to impose on her.
All pretty heady stuff, but don't imagine that this novel is a depressing long day's journey into night. Fowler's real gift is that she manages to present the ponderous problems her characters face with a style and grace that takes your breath away. We move flawlessly from the magical world of Soleil Marie Beauvoir, whose narrations are infused with the lilting rhythms of the French Creole of her Haitian ancestry, to the triumphant scene of Inez Temple standing up to the racism of one Mrs. Barthaleme Finster, "inheritor of land someplace in New York City," to the killing fields of Cambodia, where Emory comes face to face with death. Just when you think Fowler may be heading for trouble, she deftly pulls back and brings on another character.
Even her humorous scenes are never pushed too far. When Charlie steals Jewel's body from the funeral parlor to comply with his request to be buried under his favorite tree, he can't resist the temptation of getting back at the friend who had looked down on him so often in life. He gives him a spin in the Black Beauty, the boat of a car Jewel snobbishly had refused to ride in. Reaching just to the edge of mawkishness, the scene is a veritable tour de force.
Fowler's characters are not stereotypes nor vehicles for some larger concept. They are unique and yet frightfully familiar. Their losses, we discover, are not so dissimilar from our own losses. By listening to each of these individuals have their say and following their intertwining lives, we come to realize just how connected we all are.
In the novel's final section Inez Temple spies a spider's web in the moonlight: "A work of beauty it surely was. Those frail lines of light spinning first long and round and then tighter and tighter to the web's center. Spokes connecting it all, holding it all together." Her impulse is to touch it. But stronger than her urge to pluck the web is her desire to see its pattern preserved. "A world far larger than herself this lady spider had spun," she says. "It was a marvel."
The same can be said for Connie May Fowler and her remarkable first novel.
Margo Hammond is book editor of the St. Petersburg Times.