Cullin returns to the rural Texas landscape of his Whompyjawed (1999) and Branches (p. 5), in a narrative that veers unevenly between mordant humor and a self-conscious quirkiness that too often undercuts his real gift for language and invention.
The precocious and preternaturally observant adolescent narrator, Jeliza-Rose, is a classic American literary type reminiscent of Harper Lee’s Scout and Carson McCullers’s Frankie. After her mother dies of a drug overdose, Jeliza-Rose and her father move from Los Angeles to Texas, returning to What Rocks, the farm that belonged to her late grandmother. Her father, Noah—also a former junkie—is a gifted guitarist and songwriter who dreams of moving to Denmark. Why Denmark? Like much else here, the reason seems rooted less in a coherent narrative structure than in authorial whimsy. Nothing particularly pressing keeps father and daughter living at What Rocks, other than a lack of money and of will to go anywhere else. Jeliza-Rose is left to fend for herself, and, like children everywhere, she has a prodigious imagination that keeps her continually diverted while her neglectful father lapses into a terminal dreaminess. She befriends a lonely scarecrow of a man called Dickens, an eccentric woman, Dell, who likes to wander around wearing a beekeeper's protective mask, and a stuttering boy named Patrick. Jeliza-Rose also calls on a large collection of Barbie dolls for amusement. Cullin has a wonderful feel for the big and wide Texas landscape that Jeliza-Rose finds herself in. His descriptions of how a child can happily lose herself in the long grass, wildflowers, and mesquite are lyrical without being precious.
There's not much of a story for Cullin to hang his sharply drawn, often poignant evocation of childhood on. Still, his feel for the painful awkwardness and sensitivity of adolescence is worth the trip.