He’s an anthology professor. She’s a snake-handling ex-con. What they share, in this gloriously quirky sixth novel from Hellenga (The Italian Lover, 2007, etc.), is a hunger for knowledge.
It’s a time of beginnings. The world is soon to begin a new millennium. The professor, Jackson Jones, again feels vigor after being racked by Lyme Disease. And Sunny is primed for a fresh start after six years in the slammer. Their stories are intriguing. Jackson did his fieldwork in the Forest, in the Congo, living with the Mbuti, or pygmies. He went native, sleeping with a young Mbuti woman; she bore him a daughter; he’s tempted to return. Sunny hails from Little Egypt (southern Illinois). She was only 16 when she married Earl, the pastor of a Pentecostal congregation that handles snakes. When Earl thrust her arm into a box of rattlers, she shot him in self-defense, wounding him, nothing serious. She’s now 35, five years Jackson’s junior; in prison she lost her religious faith but caught up on her education, and is now enrolled at Jackson’s central Illinois university. He offers her the apartment above his garage that belonged to his handyman, her dead uncle. They become lovers; there’s an astonishing scene, Lawrentian in its fervor, that invokes Greek mythology. Then Earl arrives to reclaim his wife. The story proceeds on parallel tracks. There’s a roller coaster involving Jackson, Sunny and Earl, which will climax with a second shooting and trial. Then there’s the story of two unconventional people with open minds. As Sunny gobbles up her courses like a kid in a candy store, Jackson travels to Little Egypt to pursue “salvage anthropology” and observe the charismatic Earl at work. The author affirms the validity of both backwoods magic and scientific inquiry on campus.
Three reasons to love Hellenga: He’s a fine storyteller; he gives us new eyes; he restores our sense of wonder. Attention must be paid.