Two misfit scamps run rings around their foes in this coming-of-age novel, set in the post-war South.
In Atlanta, circa 1952, few people stick out more garishly than Billy Wilson, a 12-year-old transplanted Yankee with bright red hair, a grandiloquent vocabulary, a penchant for tap dancing and a yen to become a cheerleader. Ten-year-old tomboy Scooter Thompson is smitten with him, and the two become partners in juvenile hell-raising–stealing auto parts and candy, planting counterfeit money on assorted miscreants for the police to find, spying on neighbors and teachers and blackmailing them with the resulting intelligence. Their adventures get them involved with a raft of eccentrics, including a local bootlegger who’s become a city pillar, an alcoholic ex-con turned Pentecostal preacher, a bombshell exotic dancer who likes to bathe with teenage boys and Scooter’s beloved grandfather, whose little black book contains dark secrets about the Ku Klux Klan and his own past. Two marginal kids slightly misaligned with their surroundings, Billy and Scooter are avid, if wary, observers of a sometimes sweet, sometimes rancid South, taking in steamy revival meetings, hard-scrabble farm life, high school football crazes and the hypocrisies of genteel racism. The novel often feels like a bawdier, white-trash version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Abernathy’s tale doesn’t quite muster the resonance of Harper Lee’s, though, in part because his protagonists are undeveloped. Billy stays a flamboyant but uninvolving cipher, and Scooter seems unmarked by her passage out of childhood and into a tacked-on montage of adult life as a Broadway actress. Their struggle against bullies of many stripes remains a series of picturesque set pieces and character sketches that doesn’t generate much dramatic force. Still, Abernathy captures their colorful world and its pungent atmospherics with wit and verve.
A deft, tragicomic evocation of Southern-fried nonconformism.