June 14, 2006

Between The Covers

"Southern Gothic," an American sub-genre of the late-18th century English Gothic novel, often features a bizarre if not pathological misfit whose presence terrifies neighbors and threatens the protagonist for cause that borders on insanity. Unlike its English progenitor where evil is portrayed as religious heresy, the malevolence that stalks Southern Gothic fiction is all too earthly, a symptom of depravity that may be genetic or congenital.

Of course, the South has no license on sociopaths, but what sets Southern Gothic apart, whether the location is a seedy town or rural backwater, is its atmosphere of inbred community or insular culture, a sense that its (white) inhabitants mistake myth for history. To leave the South, even if North is Virginia, is to invite condemnation from those who remain, and to suffer guilt. In Rock of Ages, his eighth novel, Howard Owen, Deputy Managing Editor of the Richmond Times Dispatch, skillfully evokes this peculiar American region in a state that supported The Peculiar Institution.

Owen's central character is Georgia McCain, a college English teacher who had left her East Geddie, NC home — memories, heritage, a remaining old relative and acquaintances, including a sharp-eyed, elderly school teacher — for Montclair, Virginia. There she has been living with her son from her first marriage and the girl who is carrying his child. Georgia is introduced in the first chapter October 17 [2000] by a third-person narrator, but a preceding section provides a brief prologue told in the first person and dated December 18: "My parents delivered me from evil" is the first line. Then, after a few sentences in which Georgia talks about how she avoided getting in trouble as a young girl, there comes this blockbuster: "There's no easy way to say it: I am being raped . . . If it's my life I'm watching here, looking down on my pitiful, battered, middle-aged body bent over a picnic table in this ghost world devoid of mercy, I guess that's not a good thing . . . What I'm dreading is what comes next. This is obviously a prelude to the main event."

Because of the chronology, the reader doesn't know how this horrific incident plays out but clearly, by going back in time a couple of months, when Georgia receives a call that the body of her elderly aunt has been fished out of a murky pond, the narrative builds suspense. Still, it's not tension over murder or rape that prove most compelling in this well-written tale.

Owen has fine insight into the mind of a 51-year-old woman who, for all her intelligence, self-awareness, and caustic common sense, feels she is a failure — at marriage (she's had three husbands), at mothering (her college-grad son, who bolted for the Peace Corps, now seems totally content with a simple, uneducated country girl), and at reconciling herself to her roots. The sudden death of her last, beloved husband has precipitated a breakdown, and she has taken a sabbatical to find herself. The unexpected demise of her elderly aunt, whom she hasn't seen for a while, calls her back to East Geddie.

The title of the book, Rock of Ages refers to a large boulder that sits on land formerly in Georgia's family but now in the possession of a young farmer befriended by her dead father. Incidental to the story, the rock stands (too obviously) as a symbol for endurance, a mist-shrouded prompt that intuition and dreams might be a good guide for doing right.

Although violence drives the plot in Rock of Ages and a vicious bullying dominates the landscape, it is setting — tacky, beautiful, comforting, dangerous — that most impresses. Owen reminds readers that despite the hip pizzazz of urban 21st century America and the "leafy, corduroy-jacketed world of academia," large parts of the country are still remote and nurture the kind of people who, for bad or good, force sophisticates to know themselves.

Rock of Ages by Howard Owen. The Permanent Press, 238 pp., $26.

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