Todd Keith

Those familiar with Iain Pears' sweeping historical thrillers, An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio, can be forgiven if they finish his newest work, the sparse, economical The Portrait, and wonder aloud if this portrait-in-miniature was written by the same author. Rest assured, it was. While Pears' latest may not share the grand scale of his two previous intricately erudite novels, it would be a mistake to confuse brevity with lack of depth. Like the most potent works of art, The Portrait contains multitudes within its slender frame.

Set during the twilight of the Edwardian era, this is the rendering of two friends and rivals during a long-postponed reckoning. William Nasmyth is England's most renowned art critic; Henry MacAlpine, his one-time protŽgŽ, is a Scottish painter of declining artistic stature. Years ago, MacAlpine went into self-imposed exile on a lonely island off the northwest coast of France just as his star was ascending in the fashionable art circles of London. His hermit-like existence is transformed when his old mentor arrives on the island to sit for a portrait. What transpires dredges up painful and pleasurable memories for both men: memories of betrayal and youth spent in the heady days when the post-Impressionism of Matisse and CŽzanne revolutionized the art world. Yet like a painting that conceals as much as it reveals, MacAlpine's attempt to capture Nasmyth's essence in his portrait has implications that reach deeper than the canvas alone.

The slim novel is told entirely from MacAlpine's perspective, and Pears drops nearly all quotation marks so that the prose is as direct as a brushstroke. And when a sinister tone enters MacAlpine's narration, one can sense the raw, emotional impact that gathers like a violent storm coming over the sea. Richly evocative of its historical milieu, The Portrait is study in presentation and rising drama that rewards multiple viewings. And readings. Todd Keith is an editor at Portico Magazine in Birmingham, Alabama.

Those familiar with Iain Pears' sweeping historical thrillers, An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio, can be forgiven if they finish his newest work, the sparse, economical The Portrait, and wonder aloud if this portrait-in-miniature was written by the same author. Rest assured, it was. While Pears' latest may not share the […]

Southern fiction is a double-edged sword: by genre alone, a Southern novel is bound to draw a certain number of readers, yet authors who venture too far into the potentially clichéd waters of Deep South literature risk alienating more readers than they attract. How can an author tell of the South without forgetting that the story must come before and even in spite of the work's setting? Carter Coleman does just that in his second novel, Cage's Bend.

As the novel opens, two brothers, Cage and Nick, line up on a cool Louisiana morning in 1977 for a high-school cross-country race. There is a lovingly devoted yet competitive edge to their relationship supported by the assumed idea that in sports, as in life, the best competitor will win. But as the events of the next three decades reveal, life is seldom that straightforward or fair. Told from the alternating perspectives of the three Rutledge brothers Cage, Nick and Harper as they mature into adulthood, this story of the unraveling of a close-knit family rings so authentic that passages often contain an almost shocking immediacy. The story's focal point is Cage, the handsome, talented older brother whose struggles with manic depression seem to come in direct proportion to the promise and endless possibility his young life once held. After a sudden tragedy strikes, what was once an idyllic domestic repose is shattered by a new reality and the ongoing conflict of mental illness.

The pain each character endures in his own particular fashion is made all the more real by the connection Coleman successfully forges between reader and character from the book's onset. The novel works for the simple reason that the characters in this fictive story feel real. In Cage's Bend, the talented new voice of Carter Coleman rises above the crowd of writers from the American South. One cannot but hope it is the beginning of a fine career.

Todd Keith is a writer and editor at Portico Magazine in Birmingham.

Southern fiction is a double-edged sword: by genre alone, a Southern novel is bound to draw a certain number of readers, yet authors who venture too far into the potentially clichéd waters of Deep South literature risk alienating more readers than they attract. How can an author tell of the South without forgetting that the […]

Few writers create narrative threads so closely following the process of memory as Roy Blount, Jr. All the more apt that his memoir, Be Sweet: A Conditional Love Story, manages to collect a swarming beehive of memories, incidents, stories, and mild exaggerations, bundle them together with a humorists' half-knot of narrative, and make it read like a revelation. In his search to explain and remove the “family curse” as he calls it, Blount ventures forth into the realm of what it means to be both middle-aged and a humorist and whether there is a connection between the two at all. Dominating all is that litany those two little words from his mother repeated to Blount the child, “be sweet,” that seemed to have set him on this journey in the first place. Confiding without resorting to confession, the memoir's first chapter sets the tone and tenor of what will be an irreverent, jumbled, nonlinear trek. It starts with pieces of Blount's childhood in Georgia and ends with a resolution and at least a partial sense of closure with the most complex figure in his life the lonely, abused, orphan girl that was his mother. As stories spawn more stories, the reader comes to realize digression is Blount's chosen path toward that closure he seeks.

A commentary on the memories that make up memoirs, Be Sweet is not content only to revisit these collected stories of a family's past: Blount intends for the reader to participate in the very process itself. Partly, this is what it means to be a humorist in this ironic, disaffected age. But most of all, Blount see this as the most direct way to convey the honesty of an author dredging the past for answers. And the amount of material, sheer hilarious material, brought to the surface is amazing. A lengthy, near scholarly chapter, “Junior,” ruminates on the accomplishments and failings of numerous famous juniors and how they must “resist the temptation to become second bananas.” Then it evolves into a touching examination of the relationship between Blount and his namesake father. Similarly, another section begins with Blount detailing the requisite self-loathing required of any humorist worth his salt and ends with a look at the difficult childhood burden his mother had to bear and how Blount credits such a past for his sense of humor. Moving from the more universal of his experiences to the intimate, revealing moments, Blount's knack for finding the perfect ironic voice never falters.

A resolute and unflinching name-dropper, Blount recounts one ridiculous anecdote after another in this journey that touches on the movie stars, famous athletes, and well-known politicians he has hobnobbed with. At times, the story may brilliantly fit the narrative; other times, it begins to feel like you are sitting at the foot of a master storyteller, just hanging on for gems, not sure what is coming next.

You cannot help but feel it is intentional. Does the humorist drive the “message” of the book or is it the “message” driving and intensifying the humor? Either way, you read on, and it works. Being sweet, as we learn, may demand too much for the average person. Being funny is a walk in the park for Roy Blount, Jr.

Reviewed by Todd Keith.

Few writers create narrative threads so closely following the process of memory as Roy Blount, Jr. All the more apt that his memoir, Be Sweet: A Conditional Love Story, manages to collect a swarming beehive of memories, incidents, stories, and mild exaggerations, bundle them together with a humorists' half-knot of narrative, and make it read […]

The challenge of writing a modern Southern novel must be daunting. After all, what remains to be uncovered? There are the familiar narrative landmines of racial subplots, off-kilter aunts, small-town characters, and the trauma of growing up in a world and a region that just doesn't make sense to most adults and certainly not to a sensitive, aware ten-year-old boy. In his second novel, Tommy Hays, a native of Greenville, South Carolina, steps right into the fray, taking the genre and infusing it with a direct, understated honesty all his own.

In the Family Way begins in Greenville with the seminal event in Jeru Lamb's world: the death of his older brother, Mitchell. It is an event that sends Jeru's otherwise normal mother to embrace Christian Science for solace, convinces his father to quit his steady job at an advertising agency to devote himself with equal zealotry to literary ambitions, and casts a bizarre, tragic pall over three generations of the Lamb family in general. Jeru, it seems, must learn to deal with the loss in his own way. Then, with his mother's unexpected pregnancy a development strongly against her doctor's orders Jeru suddenly has more fears of loss to confront.

Told through Jeru's eyes, Hays's novel tackles the daunting task of presenting a believable young narrator clever enough to relate an engaging story while not being so wise that the author's voice seeps through. Hays does a credible job. We may never fully accept Jeru as merely a young boy limited by what someone his age would know, but at the same time readers will relish the particular youthful integrity Jeru brings to the search for meaning in his world. This act of creating such a memorable and convincing narrator is where In the Family Way succeeds, and it separates Hays from the rush of recent Southern fiction. At its best moments, the novel contains too much truth to be merely a novel. At times there is so much veracity in the choices, the words, and the decisions Hays makes, readers will find themselves wondering how much of this fiction is based on fact. How much of Tommy Hays can be found in the touching, engaging story of Jeru Lamb? After all is done, perhaps that is the sign of success in fiction, creating a character who lives in our thoughts after the last page is read.

Todd Keith is a freelance writer and website manager.

The challenge of writing a modern Southern novel must be daunting. After all, what remains to be uncovered? There are the familiar narrative landmines of racial subplots, off-kilter aunts, small-town characters, and the trauma of growing up in a world and a region that just doesn't make sense to most adults and certainly not to […]

Thank Daniel Wallace, first-time novelist from Birmingham, Alabama, now residing in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for a singular and surprisingly comic contemplation on the death and life of a father as witnessed by his son. But this event is not just witnessed, as the subtitle suggests, it is turned over and imaginatively recreated four times, to be exact until the son William Bloom can get it right. Edward Bloom, William's father, is dying. A salesman from Ashland, Alabama, who, by his own confession, just wanted to be a great man, Edward is revealed in a series of amusing, backward glances as a man quick with a rib-splitting joke as well as full of wise if improbable tales of his heroic past that blend into the mythic, even fairy-tale-like material of transcendence. These backward glancesHe Speaks to Animals, How He Tamed the Giant, How He Saved My Life, for example—are the stuff of modern-day legend. All the while William narrates his father's life and adventures, he waits by the deathbed preparing for what takes four different tries at goodbye, playing the serious son to Edward's continued out-of-place witticisms. As William tries to finally understand and connect with his father before he passes, we realize the scene is not only about saying goodbye to Edward, it is also about truly listening to his stories.

A large part of the great pleasure that come from reading Big Fish stems from its structure. Loose enough to admit wonder and a strain of mystical realism, the novella also maintains the cohesiveness of good theater. In fact, it is easy to imagine the story as a tightly wound play. With an obvious debt to Willy Lowman, the traveling salesman/father icon of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Daniel Wallace takes the story a bit further, allowing his protagonist to act out and attempt to act through the exaggerated yet serious dynamics of this father/son relationship while inviting the reader to symbolically do the same. When the catharsis comes, one cannot help but feel that it perhaps arrives for the audience as well as the author.

Also admirable is the manner in which Wallace maintains the threadbare balance between the humorist's tall-tell tone a device bound to slightly distract the reader from the novella's earnest subject matter and the serious, poignant theme of how one father and son face death. And the implicit call to reckoning such an event elicits from the thoughtful, pensive mind of the narrator. Which brings us to the central, most revealing discovery this small journey evokes: depending on how much Daniel Wallace and his narrator, William, overlap, it is clear that one gift Edward gave to his son was the rare ability to spin a deft story no matter how much fact might be found in Wallace's fiction.

Todd Keith is a freelance writer currently completing a publication about the rivers of Alabama.

Thank Daniel Wallace, first-time novelist from Birmingham, Alabama, now residing in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for a singular and surprisingly comic contemplation on the death and life of a father as witnessed by his son. But this event is not just witnessed, as the subtitle suggests, it is turned over and imaginatively recreated four times, […]

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