A vividly drawn, good-humored, yet ultimately unsurprising coming-of-age tale set in small-town Georgia.
Sumner (Polite Society, 1995) has an appealing narrator in Louise Peppers, a wild southern girl with a penchant for vanilla extract and other strong liquors. In a short preface, Louise explains that the story will end with her “in the Wapanog County Jail on the night after I was supposed to marry Zane Wilder”; she then circles back to fill in the gaps between that moment and her childhood. Seven-year-old Louise belongs to a middle-class family in decidedly working-class Counterpoint, Georgia. Her successful but overly cautious father Henry keeps telling her, “Remember who you are. You are a Peppers”; her mother Florida loves Jesus more than she does anyone; and her brother Roderick is severely asthmatic. In their world, “God is white, upper-middle-class, and Southern Baptist,” and eccentricity is the rule. But after Roderick’s sudden death, the story swerves into darker regions. Henry buries his head in his job as the general manager of a corrugated-board plant; Florida turns even more intensely to Jesus; and Louise sails into adolescence stuffing herself with Oreos and alcohol. Her teenage years make for a bumpy ride. She takes a job at her father’s plant and gets her sexual initiation from T.C. Curtis, a coarse Monte Carlo–driving lug. Eventually she runs away and joins a traveling carnival, where she hangs out with freaks, pursues her dream of becoming a clown, and hooks up with the aforementioned Zane Wilder, a carnie who swallows fire. The story’s main appeal lies in its eccentric cast: the morbid grandparents, the wacky mother, the lewd carnies. And Louise’s narration sounds like a southern-grotesque parody of Jane Eyre, replacing “Reader, I married him” with “All events fall short of their anticipation; my wedding was no exception.”
Distinguished by an engaging voice, but the action doesn’t quite come to a head, and the serious parts aren’t as deft as the comedy.