A farmer turned itinerant professor debuts with an uneven set of essays deeply rooted in his native Alabama.
Shelton (Sociology/Buffalo State College) displays both his impressive narrative gifts as a memoirist and the emotional constraints of academic discourse. Whenever the author relies principally on the power of his own stories, the poignancy of his images, his essays are fiercely gripping. He fares less well when he reverts to his professorial tendencies. He includes numerous thick block quotations, which severely impede narrative progression, and he uses several literary heavyweights to bolster the value of his insights: Marx, Freud, Kafka, Poe, Proust—the “madeleine moment” makes several appearances, including, in one essay, an overlong quotation from In Search of Lost Time. Because the pieces are connected thematically rather than chronologically (several were published elsewhere in other incarnations), there are repetitions. Twice the author tells the story of how wisteria arrived in Alabama. Family farms and the town square of Jacksonville, Ala., merit multiple descriptions as well. Still, Shelton possesses a keen writer’s eye. He can be lyrical and evocative (“What I learned was how porous graves are”) or down-home and folksy (“His tractors looked like shit but they ran”). One of his greatest strengths is writing passionately but without sentimentality about the culture that created him. There are scenes depicting an attempted exorcism (his own), a grave-digging (in which he is the digger) and an attack by swarming honeybees. (His body, he writes, was covered with a “thin fuzz of stingers.”)
Redolent plants that require pruning to reveal their nourishing fruit.