Pearson has a unique voice: cynical but touching, garrulous yet concise, full of wild but appropriate metaphors. It has evolved over the last 20 years: not so naïve as when it belonged to 13-year-old Louis Benfield, jr., more open to cosmopolitan ideas and letdowns, and certainly more complicated.
On the other hand, the voice is exactly what troubles me about "Glad News" -- what makes it hard to believe *as a sequel,* which is its intent. The original book, "A Short History of a Small Place," was full of eloquent conversationalists and richly eccentric characters. The second Benfield book, "The Last of How It Was," added mouthwatering traditional Southern food.
Yet today's Louis Benfield is bored by conversations in Neely, hardly luxuriating in its characters, and disgusted by its bland modern food. And I'm thinking: what happened? If this is the grown-up boy, shouldn't he be pondering the reversal?
I think I know the problem: Pearson has admitted that he couldn't reread the original novel before writing the new one. He said it's always too painful to reread his own work: he wants to rewrite it all. I understand the dilemma: I hate rereading my old material. But if you want to write a sequel without such major disconnects, don't you have to?
I very much wanted that answer to be "yes." But then I started thinking about the meaning of a "sequel." We've come to understand the Hollywood version: a tired rehash of the same themes. But if a novel springs from the mind of a writer, you could also argue that the next novel to spring from that same mind is its sequel, regardless of how different they may seem.
On the other hand, that takes us down the dangerous road of fiction as autobiography. For years I wanted to meet T.R. Pearson, convinced that he *was* Louis Benfield, and Neely, NC, really did exist. Eventually I convinced myself he's not: he's a man who creates characters out of his imagination. That's what novelists do (and -- memo to celebrity magazines: -- actors too). We all have to find our own Neelys.
Perhaps that's what Pearson had in mind when he not only changed our view of the current town and characters, but dedicated it to Neelyites "wherever they may live."
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But once I started reading, I admired the details. Notice the talk about the fingernails. There's so much discussion about the plane ride, you have to guess Baum was there. Maybe he was returning from an earlier assignment, and saw a story in his seatmate's carry-on luggage.
The other thing I love is the story's understatement, which would be eroded if I proceeded to say anything more about it. So I won't.
I'm always interested in feedback, via info at johnclaytonbooks.cmo
Pearson recently published a "sequel" to that novel, titled "Glad News of the Natural World," and reading it is a bit like going to a high-school reunion. It's great fun to remember why you liked some of these people, but truly puzzling to wonder at how some of them turned out.
I'm only halfway through, but at this point Louis Benfield, jr., has moved to New York City, where he would be an aspiring actor if he wasn't so lazy. Both the laziness and the theater interest are surprises to me. Even more troubling for the nostalgic-minded is what has happened to his hometown of Neely, NC: it's now distinctly suburban, in the way that makes its residents both more comfortable and less eccentric (good for individuals, bad for storytellers).
One of the greatest joys of the original book was its tone: the most forgiving cynicism ever. The young Benfield, often summarizing the views of his father, would mince few words in describing people with remarkably unfortunate character flaws, but did so with such patience, kindness, and warmth that you just wanted to be friends with them. In the blurb that first attracted me to the book (one that's reprinted for the sequel), the New York Times wrote, "If there is some benign God watching over us, we want Him to look upon us with the wisdom and compassion with which Mr. Pearson views his world."
As in his other recent novels, Pearson's characters are now older and wiser. Their cynicism struggles with their goodness. The satire is still there, and no small amount of heart. But as for that overwhelmingly compassionate view of others' eccentricities (I suppose some might call it naivete)... I'm glad the first book inspired me to seek it myself.
I'm always interested in feedback, via info at johnclaytonbooks.d.c