How do you measure the heft of a novel? I don't mean its weight in your hand, but its importance, its influence. If you're an inveterate reader, as in firmly established by long persistence, you realize you take in every word, you know the novel's characters, you assimilate what happens to them, using your own life to interpret. Gained knowledge gives us a frame of reference, a tool we use to make decisions, be they pondered over or split second.
Protagonist Luke May does much the same with his own life in Steve Yarbrough's latest novel, "Safe From the Neighbors" (Knopf, 2010, $25.95). Set it the small Mississippi Delta town of Loring, much the same as Yarbrough's home town of Indianola, the novel takes place in the present but depends on the past. Luke, a high-school history teacher, explains to his honors students on the first day of school: "When you pursue truth the way a historian does, though, you'll find that it seldom travels without escort. There are all kinds of accompanying data. And causation, in particular, is usually a complicated matter."
I can't remember a clearer understatement in my recent reading, surely written by a man with a love for language.
During a phone interview, Yarbrough told me that he sat up an entire Sunday night at the end of an Ole Miss spring break, writing a 20-page short story about a football player.
"It wasn't very good," he says, "but I fell in love with narrative, and after that I would tell everyone that I was a writer, even though there was no evidence of it."
This man is a writer. More evidence, on page 33: "Around here, true wealth comes coated with glue, and it's always stuck to the same sets of hands." The sentence leaves me breathless. In fewer than 20 words, Yarbrough sums up much that I have felt has always been wrong with my beloved home state. I asked Yarbrough how much of that he realized growing up.
"It's hard to miss it, to be honest. When I was a kidand it's still true today to some extentland ownership meant everything up in the Delta. And it's hard to miss the fact that, with only a small number of exceptions, African Americans didn't own anything. I grew up with that reality seeping its daily way into me," Yarbrough said.
Growing up poor, living on 16th-section land that his father had to bid on every five years in order to keep their home, Luke thinks about Delta wealth as he's eating lunch with the school's new French teacher, Mrs. Maggie Sorrentino. She's no stranger to Luke or Loring. Dangerously fascinated, Luke wonders why such a womanwho drives to work at the small-town high school in a late-model Mercedes, wearing white pants with a purple silk blouse and heavy gold jewelrywould return to a place no one came back to. His thoughts roam from encountering her as a girl to the fact that her father shot her mother, Nadine Calloway, the night of Oct. 1, 1962, the same night as the James Meredith riots at Ole Miss, the same college his twin daughters now attend.
Right after the shooting the Calloways had left townMaggie, her brother and fatherbut with no indictment for murder hanging over their heads. Maggie's return to Loring serves as a catalyst for Yarbrough's narrative, the telling of Luke's present as he digs into the collective past of Loring.
I wanted to learn more about why Luke, fixated on the details of the riots at Ole Miss and the death of Nadine Calloway and with his on-point statement to his students about the complication associated with causation, did not like to read novels. They're complicated; they're filled with facts; little happens in a vacuum. Yet Luke says that he's bothered by fiction, by novels and the notion of plot "... in which one event leads to another in a manner that, more often not, seems overly simplistic."
How could Luke not realize that everything that had happened in his life had led from the past, that everything he's doing now leads to the present?
Yarbrough told me he wanted Luke to revel in detail, to make the past come alive: the big stories like the riots; the murder; and the little pieces like what groceries sold for at the Piggly Wiggly. To that end, "Safe From the Neighbors" gives Luke the leather-bound volumes of The Loring Times, kept by retired, former owner Ellis Buchanan, Luke's mentor.
I asked Yarbrough about Luke's dislike of plot. It had to be that way because, he says, "by the end of the novel I wanted him to realize you cannot avoid the notion that events have consequences, action produces results. Whatever it is, we'll have to bear some responsibility for it."
Things just happen, that's one of the underlying themes in the novel. "You don't know why," Yarbrough told me, "Once they do all you can do is pick up the pieces and go on." That's Luke's future, to heft his life and get on with it.
Yarbrough signs and reads at Lemuria Feb. 11, beginning at 5 p.m.