Hope and catastrophe surge through Williams’s first novel as a middle-aged woman attempts to explain her traumatic youth to her soon-to-be-born daughter.
Living in the same North Carolina trailer she grew up in, Pearl Starling, at 45, has experienced far worse than the prying eyes of her town, scandalized and titillated by the lack of a father for her child. She fends off the Pentecostals, who ensnared her once before, and begins to tell her fetus her story. At the height of the Vietnam War, her father was a Marine drill sergeant at the base nearby, but he was also a bully of a husband and father. His abuse drove Pearl onto the highways at 13 to strut her stuff for the soldiers and into the houses of her neighbors, where she met Zeke Bell, a budding James Dean with an alcoholic mother and abusive father, and the more prosperous Hunnycutt family. As a friend of the youngest Hunnycutt daughter, Nan, Pearl developed a crush on Nan’s father, Floyd, whose sweet-talking, gentle ways were a revelation to her. But when oldest daughter Cleopatra was kicked out of the house for getting pregnant, and shortly thereafter the middle daughter, cheerleader Lydia, took on half the football team in the back of a bus and then took up with Zeke, even affection-starved Pearl could see that all was not well with the Hunnycutts. Then Lydia killed herself, her mother checked into a sanitarium, and Pearl’s mother died of cancer. Roughed up by her own soldier boy, VD, before he was killed in Vietnam, Pearl learned the nasty truth about Floyd but turned to him anyway, until Zeke descended upon him to avenge Lydia’s death, and Pearl wound up in an institution herself—still not yet 17.
Despite the family carnage and her own degradation, Pearl remains a credible innocent, with a complexity of character that lifts the story and guides it to higher ground.