The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop*****

They say that old writers never die, and I hope that’s true. With her last novel, The Whole Town’s Talking, Flagg announced that she was done. It was her final novel. I was sad to hear it, but grateful to have been able to read every wonderful thing she’s ever written. She has given us so much! And then, imagine my joy when I opened my email to find an invitation from Random House and Net Galley to read and review this sequel to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, which is possibly my favorite novel of all time. Over the moon, friends. And it’s for sale now.

The tricky part of a sequel to such an iconic story is in trying to live up to what’s come before. In this case, I don’t think anyone can. That said, this is nevertheless a delightful book, and I recommend it to you, although you won’t get the full advantage from it without reading the first magnificent book first.

The format mirrors that of the first novel, (and from here forward, I will refer to it by initials: FGTWSC,) with time periods and points of view that come from a variety of settings and individuals. Whistle Stop, Alabama is no more; the freeway passed the town by, and the rest of modern transportation and technology did the same. When we return there, it’s difficult to find; boarded up buildings, tall weeds, trash, and kudzu. In fact, the start of this book is depressing as hell, and for a short, dreadful time, I wondered if the author might be slipping; but no.

The protagonist is ostensibly—from the title—Buddy Threadgoode, son of the late Ruth Jamison. Again, I find myself scratching my head, because Flagg’s protagonists are women, girls, and women. And actually, that’s true here also. Buddy is an old man, and he’s been sent to live a Briarwood, a retirement home for the elite. His daughter Ruthie married the son of the local bourgeoisie, and consequently he’s been mothballed in the nicest possible place; but he hates it, of course. He doesn’t make a scene, but who wants to be warehoused if they can help it?

However, most of the action centers on his daughter Ruthie, and then later, our old friend, Evelyn Couch. (Friends have told me I resemble this character, and I’m good with that comparison.) Evelyn gained confidence in the first novel, much of it courtesy of Ninny Threadgoode, and now she’s done nicely for herself. Husband Ed has gone to that man cave in the sky, but she has recovered from the shock and then some. And it’s roughly halfway into the story that Evelyn enters the story in a big way, and with the groundwork well established, the story takes wing.

As with the original FGTWSC, the key to keeping up with the ever-changing settings and narrators is in the chapter headings. If you skip them, you will be lost. (This fact has been established by trial and error in teaching the book to honor students in literature class.)

Flagg is a feminist, and her work reflects her subtle but unmistakable passion for social justice. Again, with the first half of this book I feared she had lost her edge; once more, I see in the second half that I am mistaken. She was just warming up. Unlike so many of the novels I’ve read recently, this story gets better and better as it progresses. At 45%, it seems like a pleasant, harmless story, and a bit of a disappointment. At 56%, I’m sitting up straighter and noticing things. At 75% I’m laughing out loud. And from there to the finish, I don’t want it to end.  

I’ve seen some lukewarm reviews for this book, and it’s understandable, in a sad way, because those reviewers are weighing this book against its predecessor. And no, this one isn’t quite as brilliant as the first, but if I deny the fifth star on that basis, then I need to go back and weed out at least 96% of the other five star reviews I have written, because FGTWSC is a matchless novel. If instead I weigh this story against those others, it stands up proudly.

When push comes to shove, I think all of us need a feel-good story like this one—which it is, despite the sorrowful beginning—all of the time, but now more than ever. Civic engagement is important, but stepping away and restoring oneself is every bit as crucial. Do yourself a favor. Switch off your news feed for a couple hours and snuggle down with this book. You’ll be more effective later for having given yourself time to recharge now.

Highly recommended.

A Street Cat Named Bob, and How He Saved My Life, by James Bowen *****

AstreetcatnamedbobHow does a young man from a middle income family end up sleeping on the streets in a cardboard box, addicted to heroin?

Answer: it happens all the time. It’s closer than you think.

James Bowen does a really fine job relating, in this lovely little memoir, how it happened to him, and the role Bob, a street cat who adopted him, had in pulling him off of Methodone and toward recovery and a life in mainstream Britain.

Here’s the disclosure: I won this book through the Goodreads.com giveaways. I say this on the fifth day of my new blog with a kind of nostalgia, since this was the first book I got free in exchange for a review; it’s been just over a year since then. The review to follow is the one I originally wrote for him back then.

James Bowen’s memoir smacked me upside the head by showing me a bias I did not know I had. First, I assumed this might be poorly written, and successful in England for the content and novelty of its subject matter rather than any attendant writing skill. When I saw the elegantly simple text, the well-crafted pacing, the deftness with which the writer weaves his life’s narrative in and out of the tale about himself and his cat, I started to look for a co-author or an “as told to”. In short, I did not really believe that someone who had (as he put it) “fallen between the cracks” of society would have the skill to write this book.

Slap my Marxist mouth! I am appalled by the social Darwinist that was lurking in the shadows of my own character, and I thank Bowen for casting that particular demon out by the dumpster, where it belongs.

Bowen has a few really brilliantly descriptive passages here, but he is not a master wordsmith. What works is the continuity of the story without any pauses for maudlin self pity. What amazes and strikes deeply, at least for me, is the way he continues for an astonishingly long period of time to assume that the cat will not want to stay with him. He has taken it in, but assumes that the streets will do better for this critter than he ever could. Time and again, he offers the cat the opportunity to run away and reject him, even after he has spent nearly all of his hard-earned money gained as a street musician on veterinary care, food, and wow, even a microchip (which my own little beagle does not have). Bob has the character to stick around, though, and eventually, in a truly marvelous moment, when a well-to-do woman offers Bowen a thousand pounds for his cat, he in turn asks her the price of her youngest child.

Sometimes people who have seen life’s dark underside commit terrible crimes and take a passive voice in discussing them later. They didn’t do something, but rather, it happened. A recent headline in my home city blared that a killer had apologized for his crimes, but when I read the article, the “apology” turned out to be, “I am so very sorry for the things that happened.” Though Bowen is surely no killer, I was watching for it. I’ve worked with youngsters who have been in and around the juvenile “justice” system here in the States. They get good at distancing themselves from their own wrongdoing, seeing it as tragic but inevitable, and adults do it too. But Bowen does not do that and does not go there. Anything he did, was something he did. If it was wrong, he owns that too. It gives his writing integrity that those who feel terribly sorry for themselves cannot impart.

So here it is. This book is terrific, and you should buy it and read it. When I entered the giveaway, I signed an agreement that this review could be used for marketing purposes by the author and his agents. I wasn’t required to write it, though, and if you’ve read my other reviews, you know I never pull punches. This one was well earned, by the way the man pulled himself out of the abyss, for himself and for his kitty, and for the way he tells the story.

Good job, Bowen.