The third from Haynes (Chalktown, 2001; and Oprah-pick Mother of Pearl, 1999) is a family drama mixed with gothic comedy set in rural Mississippi circa 1974.
Having sold his successful business out west, 70-year-old Willem Fremont heads back to Purvis, Mississippi, to find the homestead he abandoned in his youth, land now owned by the Till family. Bruno Till has returned from Vietnam with a spinal injury that keeps him housebound while his wife Leah, an educated girl from suburbia, works the farm. The two have all but stopped communicating, trapped by their individual insecurities and longings. Meanwhile, Bruno’s obese and hapless younger brother Sonny is building a shrimp boat in the backyard of the house next door, where he lives with their mother Eilene, who feigns deafness to cope with her furious—and understandable—disappointment in her sons. Down the road, Alyce Benson manages the motel where Willem takes a room while Alyce’s no-good husband Joe chases women and commits petty thievery. Alyce also sells vacuums door-to-door, and her encounter with the lonely Bruno sets the stage for a blow-up between Bruno and Leah. Bruno then moves out, unaware that Leah is pregnant. While he waits for Leah to ask him back, she mistakenly assumes he is romantically involved with Alyce. Although Willem is the title character, readers will be less drawn to his struggle with panic attacks and his burgeoning romance with prickly Eilene than they’ll be to Bruno and Leah’s troubled marriage—portrayed with delicacy and depth as the two find their way back together. On the other hand, Sonny is a buffoon and Joe Benson a cardboard villain whose violent downfall is treated as cartoon comedy. Haynes depicts some scenes so carefully they become sluggish. Her Mississippi is chock-full of cuteness and caricature, but Bruno and Leah are riveting and irresistible.
Uneven mix of silliness and insight that doesn’t quite coalesce.