A downbeat and bumpy take on the New South as disparate characters strive to find happiness.
More a portrait than fully plotted fiction, Shearer’s ambitious second novel (after The Wonder Book of the Air, 1996) is set on the banks of the Mississippi in Madagascar, a town saturated with music and memories of bad times. Its focal point is the Celestial Grocery store, where local farmers like Dean (whose wife may have left him) meet to eat as well as shop. Owned by Angus Chien, the son of Chinese immigrants, the store is known for an ancient jukebox that still plays venerable gospel, blues, and country favorites. But this old-timey grocery is more and more of an anomaly in a changing region. Casinos are moving in, tempting locals like once-successful black farmer Aubrey to gamble away his property. Mexican migrant workers are beholden to brutal gang leaders, and drug dealers have set up business. All this is observed by the reclusive Bebe Abide. As a child Bebe met Matisse in Paris; now she makes birdhouses and grows roses to sell in the city. Widowed Angus, struggling with loneliness, is attracted to the migrant workers’ cook, Consuela. Meanwhile, he hires Boubacar, a 15-year-old immigrant from Mauritania who dreams of owning the National Steel Guitar displayed in a local pawnshop’s window. The guitar once belonged to suburban mom Raine, but it was stolen from her teenaged son. Neglected by her philandering husband, Raine develops a phobia about bridges but is comforted by a divorced man who repairs jukeboxes as a hobby. Lives are touched and briefly changed, but not enough to compel.
Perceptive and elegantly written, but the author describes a time and place more than she tells a story.