An extraordinary friendship in small-town North Carolina dominates Ferrell’s compelling third novel.
Gossip is the lifeblood of Branch Creek, the setting also for Ferrell’s debut (Where She Was, 1985). Now, news that local florist Jerry Chiffon, wearing drag, has tried to gun down one of the state’s US senators sends the town into a frenzy. Jerry and his benefactor, Mrs. Maggie Labrette, have been the town’s tastemakers, Jerry as the son of a dirt-poor tenant farmer and Maggie as one who’s rich and pampered—though it’s her impeccable taste and nonjudgmental Christian charity that have set her apart. She and Jerry met back when Jerry’s mother died during a childbirth gone hideously wrong, effectively turning seven-year-old Jerry into the damaged baby’s new mother. Jerry, who “switched tribes” in taking up a woman’s chores, soon visits Maggie every Saturday, impressing her with his loving care of the deformed baby and his hunger to learn how rich folks live. Later, these Saturdays will culminate in a legendary dinner-party—followed the next day by the baby’s being found dead and Jerry’s father, in the act of striking his son, suffering a fatal stroke (the same father who once dragged Jerry to a rally for the racist, homophobic senator). As Ferrell shuffles two faces of the South, the home of mean-spirited hate and the beacon of gracious living, Jerry comes to see the removal of the senator as an aesthetic imperative, like uprooting a weed. Before the shooting, though, he spends seven years in New York, acquires a gay sensibility, finds and loses a lover to murderous homophobes, and witnesses the onset of the plague. And after the shooting, Maggie visits him in prison until her own health gives out. All along, a stunning secret lies coiled at the heart of the story, one that the reader learns late and Branch Creek never, deprived of the juiciest gossip in its history.
Despite some narrative flaws: deeply enjoyable for its heart, spirit, and furiously wagging tongues.