Books Set in the South: Charlaine Harris’s Dead and Gone; James Wilcox’s Heavenly Days; and Tim Gautreaux’s The Next Step in the Dance

By Daniel Garrett

Charlaine Harris, Dead and Gone
Berkeley/Penguin, 2009

James Wilcox, Heavenly Days
Viking, 2003

Tim Gautreaux, The Next Step in the Dance
Picador, 1998

I have been reading a book on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson’s Liberalism, by Neal Dolan, and looking at a second book on classicism and African-American literature, Ulysses in Black, by Patrice Rankine, two very serious books (scholarly and seemingly good) from the University of Wisconsin Press, but the three books that I have completed reading are novels that are set in Louisiana, the most effective of which is The Next Step in the Dance, although the book with the most progressive (socially critical, honest) vision may be Dead and Gone, a fantasy fiction.

Dead and Gone, a novel by the Arkansas-resident Charlaine Harris, focused on the telepathic Louisiana waitress Sookie Stackhouse, is full of action, possibly too much action (a lot of physical confrontations and grisly events). Harris’s earlier Sookie Stackhouse novels carried more detail about character and southern life as well as the gothic entertainment of a narrative featuring vampires and werewolves. This new book is still a page-turner but what is fascinating here is how the supernatural divisions mirror recognizable prejudices: a group of spiritual separatists resorts to brutal violence in the service of social apartheid. That is genuinely scary—the hatred suggested is believable, as a corollary to racism and homophobia.

James Wilcox’s comic novel Heavenly Days is centered on a group of unstable relationships: no marriage fits established patterns and the sexual orientation of several characters remains ambiguous. A southern social world involving elegant properties, university life, women’s concerns, weight watching, religion, and unique businesses is presented. It is a fast-moving novel. The most serious aspect may be its treatment of a conflict involving political correctness in the filling of an academic position, but, for me, the novel is amusing without carrying a correspondent compelling heft. The book is an appealing satire, one that may benefit from reading a second time, and it is an accomplishment (the book achieves an aura of sophistication not typically identified with the south), but I wish that it had more impact when I closed the last page.

The Next Step in the Dance has a lot of believable texture, really creating a sense of a real though unique world: one in which marriage, family, place, and religion are important. The book is full of cousin and cousin that—the kind of thing that pleases many southerners but stresses my nerves. The two central characters Paul and Colette, a mechanic and bright pretty girl, are vivid, as they tug against their limitations and yearn toward their possibilities. This is a genuine novel—it allows the writer to introduce us to people we would not know otherwise, and we see them struggle for love and forgiveness, for money and stability. The writer creates a vision of community that is both redemptive and convincing (I must say, it brought tears to my eyes several times: but thinking of it now, I am a bit wary of that effect). Rather than a comedy of remarriage, it is a drama of remarriage, showing the tests people must go through to know, accept, and love each other. It is a conservative book, in that it affirms staying in the world one is born in.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  This commentary on southern literature previously appeared on Garrett’s internet log City and Country, Boy and Man.