Dour debut about Tennessee clan’s “lost grandeur”—and how it complicates the arduous process of self-healing undertaken by a guilty protagonist.
Elliott’s first is a patchwork of narrative, meditation, and detailed flashbacks, narrated by 28-year-old Tobia Caldwell, former amateur herpetologist, law student, and media consultant—and reluctant participant in Rollback, Inc., the family “reclamation project” that’s buying back formerly sold-off land and demolishing houses built over Confederate graves. The Caldwell pride in its history of aristocratic connections and military prowess is challenged by the reminiscences of octogenarian family friend Fenton Monroe (a grizzled eccentric accompanied everywhere by his pet leashed snapping turtle). And Tobias’s struggles with the past are deepened by his memory of luring a brash young neighbor to death by snakebite, when both boys were seven years old. Elliott handles in masterful fashion this crucial episode, and precisely, chillingly details the manner in which Tobia comes to understand how his (perhaps inbred?) arrogance and cruelty have shaped his maturing. But the story attempts too much, leaping about in time to depict Tobia’s unsettled amorous friendship with the dead boy’s twin sister; his brusquely truncated collegiate football career; the stagy protest demonstrations that interrupt a Caldwell reclamation “party”; and Tobia’s vacillating closeness to the father who has always expected too much of him and his angry, virtually unreachable stroke-ridden mother. The prose is exquisite, particularly whenever Elliott analyzes Tobia’s distracted fascination with the menacing creatures that are both agents of, and metaphors for, his own corruption and duplicity (“I loved the snakes darkly”). Given the power of such sequences, the tale’s relapse into multiple climactic resolutions feels almost completely unconvincing.
A bold, flawed—and, on balance, quite promising—first effort.