A passive-aggressive southern boy puts his past to rest in this debut novel: a honey-voiced tale edged with pitch-black humor and simmering with intimations of violence. Billy Mitchell, 22, has finished four years at Alabama's state university, emerging with a fraternity pin, an addiction to alcohol, and a perfectly proper fiancÇe—Daisy Brehard, an empty- headed girl whose daddy owns Tuscaloosa's only newspaper. Billy is now expected to move off the plantation-like grounds of his doctor- father's mental institution (``as well run and modern as any facility in the entire South'') and embark on some sort of gentlemanly career. But memories of a traumatic childhood hold him back; other than half-heartedly working as the local groundskeeper, he can only manage to hide behind mirrored sunglasses, get drunk on beer, drive his white convertible, and chase after Virginia, a pretty teenaged ``lunatic'' whose father had her committed as a nymphomaniac. ``You're a fool, Billy,'' says Epiphany, the family maid and Billy's only confidante. Indeed, Billy's utter passivity and baroque, hyper-southern verbal posturing fail to deceive anyone as he delves into the mystery behind his mother's death years ago, when she eloped with Carmen, the family's black maid, and was burned to death in an oil fire on a Texas highway. Did Billy's father cause the women's deaths, as Billy suspects? And is the Doctor now involved in a deadly feud with Nigel, Carmen's only son, an angry young man deeply involved in local (i.e., racial) ``politics''? Billy worries over these questions in his muddled, alcohol-soaked manner as real life transpires all around him—his engagement dissolves, his would-be father-in-law offers to kill him, Virginia announces her pregnancy, and the good Doctor and his vigilante buddies cruise through the night with their shotguns, murder and mayhem in their hearts. A tightly controlled, masterful debut with a unique voice: this 24-year-old author's gift for character, drama, and ironic understatement should take him far.
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