CANAAN by Charlie Smith


Email this review


The untamable Southern belle, free-spirited and earthy and gorgeously mad in the Zelda/Tallulah tradition, is a stock figure in Southern fiction--and rather too much of this talented, uneven, inflated debut depends upon the supposed fascination of just such a wild-and-crazy femme fatale. Elizabeth Bonnet, a super-beauty from grand Charleston roots, marries plantation-heir J.C. Burdette when they're both in Hawaii during World War II; son Jacey is born. But, when ambitious, conventional J.C. heads home to Georgia to turn the plantation into a business empire, Elizabeth declines to follow--remaining four years in Hawaii with little Jacey, running naked and taking lovers, living ""her life as if every day were a cotillion."" Likewise, when Elizabeth does deign to join J.C. at the Canaan estate, she refuses to settle down: she blithely adulterizes through the 1950s with an ex-beau neighbor and two Burdette cousins (woodsy Delight, painter Rooley); she explores lesbian joys with a local doctor's wife; and she continues to glory in fleshly exhibitionism, with special, masturbatory show-and-tell displays for pre-pubescent son Jacey. Understandably, then, husband J.C.--whose adored dead mother was also wild-and-crazy--is driven a little mad by Elizabeth's doings (he beats her, he shoots a horse), but their sexual bond and the challenge of it all (""She was the biggest risk I ever took"") keep him from ever casting her off entirely. Understandably, too, son Jacey grows up with conflicting feelings about Mama, Daddy, and sex: he ""could understand her love of simple being, but he felt always and at the same time the tug of his father's energetic, explorative, questing way of life."" And finally, after 16-year-old Jacey runs off to Manhattan with his 19-year-old girlfriend Martha, there's a final confrontation between both men and wife/mother Elizabeth. . . with sexual taunts, overdue recriminations, and predictable violence. First-novelist Smith effectively provides the moist plantation textures for all these Southern-gothic doings; some of the family-relationships (especially those involving grandfather Jack, an old-fashioned, visceral sort who's been deposed by J.C.) are richly, amusingly captured. The central triangle here, however, is made clear in the opening pages and then belabored over the next 400; imitation-Faulkner prose bubbles up frequently--especially in interminable, quasi-lyrical evocations of Elizabeth's free-spirit (""I am the yellow sweetness of the tulip tree blossom,"" etc.); and, with constantly shifting viewpoints, not one of the three major characters emerges with full-bodied conviction. In all, then: an unfocused, sprawling re-run of Southern-gothic elements (from Oedipal furies to symbolic snakes)--but with enough scene-by-scene strength and detail to promise better novels ahead.

Pub Date: Feb. 5th, 1984
Publisher: Simon & Schuster