Books: Southern Discomfort

Fifty years—no, not 50, not even 30 years ago, Robert Goolrick might well have not published his memoir, “The End of the World as We Know It.” And he wouldn't have had to wait for someone to forbid it or talk him out of it. He wouldn't even have had to argue with himself about it. Because long before it got to that point, he would have heard a voice going off in his head—not a still, small voice, but a firm, no-nonsense Presbyterian grandmother kind of voice—saying, “Where are your manners?”

I’m glad those days are behind us sufficiently for Goolrick to go public with his book. I say sufficiently, because they certainly aren’t gone completely, much less for good. Southerners cherish privacy and discretion and decorum more than they prize good sense. If they didn’t, Goolrick wouldn’t have had to write his memoir.

He’s built his book around a punchline ending—a dark surprise—so I won’t give it away, although to be honest, this structure he’s adopted is my least favorite part of the book. Let it suffice that he suffers humiliating abuse as a child and it colored everything that followed. There again, colored is hardly the word—warped, distorted and a particular Anglo-Saxonism that begins with f and ends with up hardly begin to describe his trauma. But let’s put it in purely medicinal terms: “This is what it takes to get me through the day: 450 milligrams of Eskalith, 1,000 milligrams of Neurontin, 2 milligrams of Klonopin, 6 milligrams of Xanax, 80 milligrams of Geodon, 200 milligrams of Lamictal. They do not begin to touch the anguish and shame of being what I have been, of becoming what I have become.”

That said, the big dramatic finish, while it is very big and quite dramatic—believe me, you’re not going to say, is that all, when he finally pulls the curtain back—is nothing compared to what Goolrick has already accomplished: a devastatingly shrewd, no-nonsense description of mid-20th-century Southern mores and manners that can rank with the work of Walker Percy or Peter Taylor. How people behave at cocktail parties ("When my brother and sister and I were children, men and women had two things we don't have now: cocktails and hairdos") and in hospital waiting rooms, the strategies kids used to get their mother to buy a new shirt, what fall looks and feels like in the Shenandoah Valley—these are small things, but the pleasure Goolrick takes in describing them is infectious. He could have written a book of reminiscences, a book that just set down how people lived a half-century ago, and I would have devoured it. His writing is indelible, especially when he is writing about the slow decline and fall of the world he grew up in, when "women didn't wear gloves or carry clean white embroidered handkerchiefs in their purses, and men didn't wear ties in the evenings when they went out for drinks." The crazy thing was how some standards stuck while others declined. "The children all had long hair and smoked dope and took acid, although we, my brother and sister and I, still wrote our own mother thank-you notes if we came home for the weekend."

There is, of course, all the darkness in the book, the bleak secret that keeps everything—and everyone, the reader included—a little off balance all the way through. There’s something unsatisfying about the order of this story, although I can’t think how else he could have told it. But that’s a quibble. The beauty of the story is in its language and its keen appreciation for the details that turn a childhood into an understated Chekhovian nightmare.

At the other end of the universe lies James Wilcox’s “Hunk City,” a wry comedy about Wilcox characters met before in previous Wilcox novels about Tula Springs, La. If I hadn’t read these books back to back, I might never have connected them. But triangulate their Southerness and my Southerness and bingo, everything that rises must converge. As pointed out earlier, Southerners are obsessed with propriety, with seemliness, and most of all with formality. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do just about everything—and no arguing about it—as one may divine from the following exchange between a mother and daughter in “Hunk City”:

“'Well, if you ask me, it’s rude, plain rude.' A bobby pin in her mouth, Mrs. LaSteele peeled the Scotch tape from a curl adorning her forehead. ‘I ask you to look presentable, daughter, and this is the thanks I get.’

“'You never asked me to look presentable.'

“'A young lady should always look presentable, just in case.'”

The “young lady” in question is 57 years old.

"Hunk City"'s plot is a sometime thing. It’s the people, the scenes and the verbal volleying that carry this novel so handily, i.e., this reply from the stressed out superintendent of Streets, Parks and Sewers: “Look, I’ve got meetings coming out the wazoo. Plus, First Baptist expects me to run the small-arms auction for the new organ, and I’m not, I just am not.”

If “Hunk City” is about anything, it’s the culture wars, played out on a small-town scale, which is to say, a level at which people’s personal allegiances and their political and religious beliefs get so swapped around that a divorce lawyer is having an affair with her client’s husband (I think). The mistaken identities in this book start when the characters look at themselves in the mirror every morning.

The comedy of manners and the tell-all memoir don’t usually share much common ground, but when the common ground is Dixie and the writers are as attuned to Southern habits of being as Goolrick and Wilcox are, the results are oddly but pleasantly similar. In their very different books, each man has given us a world as enchanting and self-contained as a snow-globe. The fascinating thing is how deftly both writers draw us into their worlds and how desperately, despite the pain of one and the lunacy of the other, we want to stay there long after the stories are over.