A young woman flees the rural South in a kind of literary Guernica for American life in the ’60s.
The smart kids know enough to flee dying Wattles, Tennessee, observes Dahlia Jean Coker, a 16-year-old coming of age there. Wise Dahlia gets away after a botched robbery at the diner where she works. She latches on to the money the robbers wanted, then teams up with one of the two thieves—young, darkly handsome Cole—who readily splits from domineering ex-con Twitch, the mastermind of the hit. Dahlia and Cole light out in a pink Cadillac, and Dahlia’s initial impression that the car might belong to Elvis serves as the first hint that Jackson (Leavenworth Train, 2001, etc.), a five-time Pulitzer nominee, is working symbolic terrain. Dahlia and Cole will be compared to Bonnie and Clyde, the Younger gang will be invoked as Twitch’s ancestors, and a flood of near-biblical scale will engulf Dahlia and Cole and their pursuers, Twitch and Dahlia’s mother Burma. The observant Dahlia underlines the import of this apocalyptic event, wondering if they’re all part of “a doomed race of Huck Finns goin’ nowhere but crazy . . . .” To Jackson’s credit, he keeps his narrative focused on Twitch and Burma’s hunt for Dahlia and Cole despite a slew of offbeat characters (snake handlers, Freedom Riders, Klansmen, even a refugee from Castro’s Cuba) who fade in and out during the picaresque journey. Can love survive such a world? Twitch suggests that it can’t: “ ‘This ain’t love. It’s fuckin’,’” he tells Burma when they hook up. Dahlia and Cole, doing “better things” by piloting the refugee on a boat to Cuba, suggest that it can.
Ambitious, unpretentious, yet not memorable. There’s just too much here, and Jackson’s only-serviceable prose isn’t up to the epic scale of the work.