January 2013 Book Review: American Ghost: A Novel by Janis Owens

This prose is rushed and hard-scrabble. This is a hidden, receding history, full of the unknown and unattained. Backwoods harsh and cold and desolate and yet with a hidden quiet flickering. The writing style doesn’t match the story; there is little poetry in the austerity. The sentences are as terse and wiry as their subject.

This story follows a cast of modern Floridians over the period of a dozen years, with oft-repeated references to the past, to a history of violence and poverty, of silence and secrets. We follow two young Hendrix girls as they reach puberty in their tiny back-swamp, back woods hamlet in West Florida. Hendrix, a town of less than 300. A population less than 3% black, and no admitted Indian blood. A twilight zone of brash lies, lies about lies, and forgotten lies. A fuzzy dot on the verge of fading from the map. Here we find hidden woods and impenetrable swamp with a drowned history. Cleared fields, train tracks and concrete foundations lie buried in moss.

Teens Lena and Jolie are contrasts, talkative and quiet, coaxing and recalcitrant, hopeful and morose. As we learn about the girls, we are led into the greater world of Hendrix and Cleary, Florida, the po’ and the dandy side of the river. Lena’s family is not from Hendrix. She lives there but will always be unhampered by its history. But not Jolie. Jolie’s family defines Hendrix. Her family blood runs through every pine and river and every speck of dirt. Hendrix for her is a perpetual penurious embrace.

As we follow the girlish friendship, the great Scotch-Native Hoyt Clan is painted, first with outlines, but as the book progresses, with more detail until we are in the rotting shacks and ratty chairs and peeling linoleum kitchens. We are eating fried shrimp and sitting on falling down porches looking over the spectral verdant swamp. We can see the sun on the boat launch and smell the pork and beans. Our author knows this land and gives us a hearty taste of Cracker.

Doled out with a crooked tin ladle are these: Cracker pain and silence, despondency, machismo and covert sweetness. Hoyt cousins crowded and wise-cracking in camo, rifles and cans in toe. Shanty thanksgiving and old lady tea time. And always the poverty, the forcible receding into dust, into untreated ills and unspeakable emotions.

We peek into this destitution where things that happen, important things like murder and lynchings, love, hysteria, escape and sweetness, go unvoiced, shoved down into skinny bodies never soothed, never smoothed. And so they both fade into fragile spider-web dust and linger. And linger.

In this poor fading place, all emotion is suspect, is cautioned. We trail Jolie’s melancholy trajectory. In this place a young un-mothered girl like Jolie has only flickering motes as guides. She senses their whispers; she listens to their hush and knows that she is doomed. As we follow we can sense the netherworld of this vanishing corner of history, where tragedy beats beneath the visible.

Jolie has learned to step warily in to good times, good spaces. She is beloved and spoiled by her older Minister father, loved by her blithe brother, befriended by the most popular girl in town, Lena. Jolie is given a magical first love, and later, material success. Her beauty is handed down from a long line of trashy, something on the side Hoyt women before her who lived, and dreamed and were demeaned. Although good does live in this Hoyt home, luck has little power in the faded gloom.

Ghosts hover in every corner of the Southern Gothic landscape, crowded in, unwavering. Wherever Jolie goes, they follow, uneasy, restless, never exorcised. The corpses still hang from the Cleary town tree, even with the limb cut off decades since. The bodies still lie bloated on the ground, tricksters and unborn babes and innocent grandmas and brothers alike. Smug white men stand over them in preening, ghastly ignorance. Who were these people who won’t rest? Owens’ tale slowly unravels them, delicate flowers dried in a crease of Floridian memory. She drops their remnants into our consciousness so that we can weep and wonder over them.

If only there were more doorways into this guarded world. If we could pull the portal further open to better hear the thoughts and memories, the anguish and joy. I would have liked to know more of these people, more of their meanings and considerations. I wanted to unbolt and unfasten. I wanted to unseal these souls to hear Ray and Hugh’s talk, to know how Travis’ heart beat when he pulled the trigger, to feel Jolie’s solitude and ageing. I wanted to sit with Ray at his metal desk bent to task, and when he looked at his daughter. I wanted to hear his mind, and Ott’s, record the dread on that youthful murderous day. I wanted to listen to the memories of the elder Sisters, especially Sister Wright.

Through all the revelation of this little known world, I couldn’t help feeling that important layer fragmented and incomplete. My trip was hasty, my comprehension shallow. I left Cleary and Hendrix a trivial observer, unable to inhabit this hidden waning world before its tales shiver into the mossy air. This powerful story gave me dust and half-open doors.

Amazon link: http://amzn.com/1451674635

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