A Good Neighborhood, by Therese Anne Fowler*****

Therese Anne Fowler is a complete badass. I have never read her before, but you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll read her next book. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. You can buy this book now, and you should.

I don’t usually begin by discussing the narrative voice, but I’m doing it this time because it’s one of the most impressive aspects of this novel. The story is told in the second person, but the point of view shifts seamlessly from that of the neighbors that are friends with a key character—I’ll get there in a minute—to an omniscient narrative, and I never catch the shift; by the time I realize a change has taken place, we’ve been there awhile. So, one minute, the narrative will say things like “All of us thought…” and “Everyone knew…” but later, we’ll be told what a protagonist is thinking. This is a risky way to write, and she’s carried it off so well that I can only bow in awe.

The story is, to some extent, a modern day Romeo and Juliet. It’s a tragedy, and we’re told this at the outset. The neighborhood in question is Oak Knoll, an old, established one in North Carolina. Valerie Alston-Holt is a forestry professor with a deep dedication to the environment; her son Xavier is gifted. Xavier’s father was Caucasian, but died when the boy was small, so it is just the two of them, mother and son. The new folks next door, the Whitmans, are a blended family. Julia, the mother, was living a hardscrabble life as a single parent with her daughter, Juniper, when the wealthy, charismatic Brad Whitman, who was her boss, married her. They have a small daughter together, but Brad has also adopted Juniper so that they can be a real family. Julia can hardly believe her good fortune. Her standard of living has risen beyond anything she ever dreamed.

The tension is there from the start. The Whitman home is out of character in comparison to the neighborhood, a garish, over-the-top McMansion built on a large lot created by tearing down the existing home that had been there. And the outcome of the construction is that a tree—a beloved tree—on the Alston-Holt property next door—is now dying.  The forestry professor sees an attorney, and the battle is joined.

Despite the tension between the adults, Xavier and Juniper are drawn to one another. They are teenagers, upperclassmen in high school, and they’re both squeaky clean kids, serious students. Neither has been in a serious relationship before. As we see their romance blossom, the narrator reminds us that this won’t end well.

I began this novel using my review copy, and although I could see it was going to be good, I was falling behind my reading for unrelated reasons. I scooped up the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and so I can tell you that the reader does a wonderful job, and the story is well suited to this medium.

Fowler is an experienced writer, and it shows. There are several lazy stereotypes she deftly avoids. The Alston-Holts are middle class, not struggling financially. (Here I think of the new book, Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, who reminds us that only one in five African-American families is poor.) Brad Whitman, who is a complete horse’s ass, is a charismatic Christian, but he is not a preacher, he’s a businessman.

Of course this story has a great deal to say about race and wealth, and how society empowers us according to these parameters. But because the characters are so intimately developed, so brilliantly fleshed out, the message integral to the story never feels like a manifesto. And reader, I’ll tell you, I’m a tough old granny who rarely is undone by a sad story, but I grew a little misty at the end of this one, and I thought about it for quite awhile afterward.

Highly recommended in whatever form you enjoy.

The Last Road Home, by Danny Johnson****

thelastroadhomeThe Last Road Home, bold and impressive new fiction by Pushcart Prize nominee Danny Johnson, came to me free thanks to Net Galley and Kensington Books in exchange for an honest review. It tells the story of Raeford “Junebug” Hurley and his friendship with neighboring twins, Fancy and Lightning Stroud. Junebug is Caucasian; the twins are African-American, politely referred to during that time as ‘colored’ or ‘Negro’. The story is set during the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s, but in rural North Carolina, the Klan stands tall and strong and absolutely nothing has changed in terms of race relations. Junebug finds himself riding on the fence rail from hell. This fascinating tale will be available to the public in late July. Those that love good historical fiction should read it.

The book begins with one horrible loss after another. At age 8, Junebug’s parents are both killed in a car wreck, and he goes to live with his grandparents.  His life is pleasant and stable, helping his grandpa run the farm, but then his grandpa dies too. And by the time his grandmother dies, I have decided that the theme of this story must be grief and loss, or given the number of religious references, perhaps there is some sort of Christian redemption theme here. And on both counts, I find I am mistaken. Johnson is a masterful storyteller, and there is nothing simplistic in how this novel unfurls.

For while Junebug has plenty of questions about the religious fervor that pervades small towns of the South during this era, by the time he buries his grandma, he has had it with religion. “The preacher said a prayer, asking the Lord to be with me in this time of grief. I’d had all of God’s shit I could take and didn’t need His sympathy. If he said it was ‘God’s Will’, I might choke him.”

I wanted to stand up and cheer.

At age 15, orphaned and the sole remaining member of his family, he is on his own. “Fifteen was considered adult in farm years.” Lightning leaves home suddenly, unhappy with the limitations placed on Black men in his part of the world. Fancy is left behind, and she is the only friend Junebug has within walking distance of home. As friendship turns to passion, both find themselves occupying a dangerous place in their community. Given that they are cold shouldered simply for appearing in town together to run an errand, the thought of letting their feelings for one another be known is terrifying.  He recalls his grandma’s admonition:

“’Junebug, you need to understand that cruelty and memory have been married together a long time in the South.’”

Johnson does an outstanding job of depicting white neighbors’ responses to the notion that our protagonist is linked romantically with Fancy. At first they are able to maintain the age-old fiction that she is his housekeeper, but she goes home at night, then sneaks back in darkest night to lay beside him. The muted references, little hints given by Caucasian elders nearby to guide the young white farmer away from a liaison that doesn’t fit local expectations, are rendered skillfully. There are a number of really vicious racial epithets tossed casually around by the local landowners, not always even in anger, sometimes in ugly jokes, as this writer knows from childhood experience is the way racists behave when a white supremacist perspective is not something being fought for as an outlier, but rather the dominant, even comfortable, norm. As the book continues, not only anti-Black pejoratives, but also nasty terms regarding Jews and Asians are tossed into the vernacular. None are gratuitous; they are an undeniable part of the setting, which would be revisionist without them.

Fancy and Junebug seem doomed. He tells her, “It feels like my life’s sprung a lot of leaks, and I’m running out of fingers.” She points out that she only has ten fingers too.

I was watching for the pat ending, the comfortable happy fiction that novelists are often drawn toward. Every time I thought I knew where the story was headed, it went somewhere else. Johnson is brilliant at breaking apart stereotypes, making setting real and immediate, and his character development is strong apart from some minor inconsistencies toward the end. And his framework is materialist by and large, showing that our surroundings and role in life shape us in ways we sometimes don’t expect.

Those interested in this period of history or that love excellent fiction should order this book. It will be available to the public July 26, 2016; strongly recommended.