Scenes from a dirt-poor childhood in Depression-era Virginia.
In the bad old days, Wayland Garnett lived with his four siblings in a cabin in the woods, on the estate of the almighty Ballards. Now, 47 years later, the 63-year-old Wayland is a prosperous Florida businessman with a beautiful wife and daughter, all traces of the redneck expunged. On a business trip to Richmond, Wayland revisits the estate for the first time. A chapter about the past is preceded by a page set in the present; each chapter repeats the pattern. It’s an awkward device for this veteran Southern writer (Tidewater Blood, 1998, etc.), and in the end, there’s no payoff. Wayland has lied to wife Amy about his past, claiming to be the son of a tobacco planter, but he decides after his memory lane trip that telling her the truth might destroy their marriage. That truth is harsh: Wayland’s daddy manages by poaching from the Ballards (the family lives off Ballard castoffs), and making corn liquor; his momma goes barefoot; and Wayland clears ditches. Yet they have their white skin to remind them they are a cut above “the darkies,” an assumption bred in the bone. When his daddy loses his arm to a baler, he loses his self-respect and drowns himself. After Wayland finds his mother frozen to death in the outhouse, the family scatters. Wayland falls in love with the Ballard heiress, Diana. They’re both 16. Challenged by her brother Eugene, he decks the rich kid, then gives up (“poor whites don’t contend above their station”). It’s time to leave. The war has begun, and before you know it, Wayland has landed in Normandy. A muddled account of his years as an infantryman seems to have been added as filler. As for that journey home, all Wayland learns is that ancient truth: Death is the great leveler.
Hoffman conveys the stink of poverty and the shame it can cause, but not much else.