A well-constructed, intermittently moving, but awfully overwrought southern gothic melodrama by the author of Ripples (not reviewed) and Tobacco Sticks (1995).
The undying persistence of the past is here dramatized in parallel stories, each involving Charlie Tidewater, an alcoholic ex-lawyer approaching 40, and the various ghosts that haunt three generations of his family. In the contemporary story, set in summer 1998, Charlie returns from failure in Chicago to his birthplace (Southampton, Virginia), and the company of his elderly maternal “Granddaddy” Austin Turin. Obsessed by fragmentary memories of his mother and her (to him) suspicious death in 1968 (on the very day of Martin Luther King’s assassination), Charlie repeatedly questions the phlegmatic Granddaddy, and turns over some carefully buried rocks, thus upsetting a redneck sheriff, an aged black man whose family is burdened by its own mystery, and a powerful judge (with whose daughter, Minnie, Charlie begins a relationship that grows more maudlin by the page). The alternate story, which begins in 1927 and proceeds by increments throughout the next 30 years, follows Austin Turin’s progress as a skilled auto mechanic who marries the girl of his dreams and establishes his own dealership, only to fall victim to the Depression, his wife’s growing madness, and the threatened loss of his young daughter (all of which are elements of the mystery Charlie eventually solves). The best features of the novel are the exemplary skill with which Hazelgrove cross-cuts between his two narratives (he has a real gift as well for cliffhanger chapter endings), and the characterization of the amusingly irascible Granddaddy (who’s both more and less than the man we initially take him to be). Its signal weaknesses are an overreliance on stagey southern-novel clichÇs, and too many characters harboring too many guilty secrets (including the crucial one, which we guess far too easily).
Not all bad by any means, but Hazelgrove really ought to start writing novels that other people haven’t already written.