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As the title suggests, the town of Neely, North Carolina, is the main character of this colorful, often amusing, but ultimately frustratingly episodic novel. The changes in Neely's fortunes, and those of its several notable residents, are recounted by young Louis Benfield, who arrives at his own droll version of truth from two versions: his Momma's romanticized, charitable one, and his Daddy's sardonic, plain-spoken one. The story loosely centers around the waxing and waning of the fortunes of the Pettigrew family, Neely's most prominent and admired residents, beginning with the reclusive Miss Myra Angelique Pettigrew's rare public appearance on her front lawn in the center of town, draped in a bedsheet, enacting the part of Antigone, while her pet chimpanzee, Mr. Britches, capers around the front yard. A few days after this demonstration that Miss Pettigrew has become ""Not Right,"" she throws herself to her death from the water tower at the edge of town. The funeral, the auction of the Pettigrews' effects, the destruction of the house by fire, the purchase of the empty lot for a bank's branch office--with digressions into the doings of some of Neely's less august but still colorful denizens--make up the rest of the novel. As the yarn spins on, however, interest in this by-now somewhat familiar brand of southern small-town oddness begins to give way to curiosity about what the book's true aim was, and then to disappointment as it becomes evident that this aim has been too loosely defined to give A SHORT HISTORY. . .the main satisfaction most readers seek in a novel: a sense of deepening and change in the main character. Pearson has not been able to bring off the formidable feat of making a town be a protagonist. The natural expectation that grows in the reader is that young Louis Benfield will step to center stage at some point, but he remains merely a passive recorder of events. The pleasures here are considerable: Pearson has a strong sense of place, a fine ear for speech, a confident, old-fashioned way of storytelling, and a subtle, disarming humor expressing itself in throwaway lines that surprise laughter again and again. He also has an evident compassion and liking for even his screwiest characters. Overall, this is a promising, if not fully accomplished, first effort by a talented writer, to whose future offerings one looks with hope.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1985
Publisher: Linden/Simon & Schuster