Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Regional favoritism

I first heard of Nanci Kincaid when I was at library school in Tuscaloosa. They held some of her papers there, one of my classmates told me, and she used to teach there, having been married to one of the assistant football coaches. I read her novels and stories immediately and loved her work so much that I reviewed her next two novels for our local paper, but Eat, Drink, and Be From Mississippi languished on my wish list for quite a while. When I finally got a copy, I was guilt-riddled for having left it so long.

The book is about siblings who leave Mississippi for California for college, but cannot abandon the folkways of home. There is heady stuff about Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, young men being maimed in Iraq, and gun violence in inner cities. Kincaid now divides her time between California and Hawaii, but it is the Mississippi scenes which sing. The passage where Truely's father watches his son's football practice from the sidelines will feel familiar to almost any Southerner. And there is the most accurate description of the concept of money in many people's lives in this part of the world, a perspective I fear few enjoy today:
"Before meeting Hastings, neither Truely nor Courtney had ever known anything at all about money or the people who had it. Like most Mississippi kids, they had dreamed dreams that had little or no significant financial dimensions to them. They thought of money the same as they did weather -- necessary in some form, unpredictable, volatile enought to wipe you off the map at any given time. Truely and Courttey has little interest in money, peoople with it, or ways to get it."
The later parts, the ones with Arnold, have some uncomfortable elements. Kincaid reminds me of Ellen Douglass in her ability to get at the complex relationships between people, particularly when clouded by race or issues of servility and civility. Truely and Courtney take in Arnold and look after him,but it's more a commentary about their empty California lives than his neediness, and it's nothing near as neat and self-congratulatory as The Help. I am still gaping at the number of otherwise reasonable adults who don't see anything wrong with that book.

I do take issue with the publisher's promotional materials, jacket copy, and the Publishers Weekly review. Arnold is NOT from Mississippi. He is from San Diego, and only knows of Yazoo City second-hand from his grandmother. Kincaid suggests a shared culture, but does not pursue it. This is California she is writing about, after all.

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