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Ridiculing the Hillsborough "literati" was not the primary aim of a new novel about violence, family secrets, final epiphanies and sweet tea.

Melinda Ruley 

Bridge too far

For you all who haven't heard, here's the skinny from the quaint and curious town of Hillsborough: Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette recently wrote a first novel called The Bridge, set in the fictional North Carolina town of Eno. Eno is really Hillsborough, where Marlette lives and works amid a cluster of neighbors, a dozen or so of whom are famous writers.

One of those writers, Allan Gurganus, inspired a minor character in Marlette's book, an eccentric novelist who wears velvet waistcoats and sashays a lot. Gurganus was not pleased. Marlette later said he was paying homage to his distinguished neighbor, but the honor was lost on Gurganus, who called Marlette's publisher to request that his name be removed from the novel's acknowledgments. Other famous writers in Hillsborough's close-knit community lent a sympathetic ear to the wounded Gurganus, and Marlette soon found his newborn literary career threatened in its very cradle. An important reading was cancelled, a nasty anonymous poem was sent to Marlette and allegations of censorship flew hither and yonder. A scandal floated above the banks of the Eno.

For better or worse, depending on your opinion of Marlette's writing, gossipy aspersions have come to eclipse the novel's debut. Which is too bad--not because the novel shines (it doesn't) but because writers ought not be caught in snares of courtesy or deference. The path they walk is fraught enough, a thick forest where words hang like vines that propel, or choke, at will. My own guess is a novelist just finishing a book feels lucky to have survived. While Marlette may have punctured Hillsborough's communion with itself and mortified its illustrious population, the injuries were collateral damage. Marlette didn't set out to snub Gurganus; he meant to write a story, a narrative of violence, family secrets, final epiphanies and sweet tea.

The story begins with Pickard Cantrell, a famous cartoonist with a plum New York job, fuming over his paper's decision to apologize for a controversial cartoon. Pick throws a sulk, then a tantrum, clobbering his publisher and losing his job. His efficient and resourceful wife moves the family back to Pick's native South--to Eno, a picturesque colonial town in Piedmont, North Carolina. Here the Cantrells buy a decaying mansion on the banks of the river, and Pick sets about sheet rocking the butler's pantry and licking his wounds.

Pick is a gen-u-ine Southerner, though, with an extended family of modern-day Snopeses who chicken-fry the King's English, tear around in pickup trucks and generally lead no-count lives. Pick's hopes for a healing quiet are quickly shattered by a bevy of corn-shucking aunts and toothless, unemployed cousins itching to meddle in their successful relation's life. Leading the pack is Mama Lucy, Pick's grandmother and the beloved scourge of the Cantrell clan.

Against Mama Lucy Pick holds a litany of festering childhood grudges that, along with his long-distance career, have kept him safe from her manipulations. Now that he's grown up and home again, she comes at him with all her snuff-dipping, pistol-packing, she-devil gristle. In short, she wants him to mow her grass.

Pick unhappily obliges, driving over to Burlington whenever Mama Lucy beckons and subjecting himself to a carnival of abuse. Theirs is a mostly contentious relationship, but in the pauses between battles, in their pattern of quarrel and reunion, Pick begins piecing together a secret history. His grandmother, he learns, played an important role in the textile mill strikes of 1934, and her story, threading its way though the length of Marlette's novel, sparks a succession of revelations. Grudges dissolve as Pick discovers that people are really shadows within shadows, unknowable. Truths emerge like lavender panicles of lilac. And, like a good Southern protagonist, Pick learns that the past is never dead, that you live inside it always, as if inside a magic pelt.

Or, rather, you carry it around like a tick. Marlette's story of the mill strikes of 1934--real-life strikes that ravaged mills across the Carolinas--is compelling, but he serves it up with such heavy sides of honeysuckle vine and sweet wisteria it's hard not to feel hyperglycemically overwhelmed by Pick Cantrell's South.

Although several cartoonists have gone on to successful writing careers, the trick for any of them is to shift gears of sensibility and perception. A cartoonist cannot afford to be distracted by shadings or subtleties; for a novelist, they may be the whole point. Marlette seems to have written most of his characters in careful observance of this potential pitfall, but sometimes he just can't help distorting detail for the visual effect. Describing a New York socialite, he writes: "Her dangling hoop earrings were so large I was tempted to set them on fire and wait for small animals to leap through them."

It's easy to allow Marlette these small lapses; less forgivable is his treatment of the South itself. If the Cantrells resemble the Snopeses, Marlette is a resurrected Lewis Grizzard. In fact, The Bridge is so soaked in gravy and sweet tea, so grown-over with kudzu and so replete with white-trash yahoos, you wonder where Marlette's editor misplaced his merde-meter. Even the climax is predictable, featuring a standoff between an escaped convict with a "Born to Raise Hell" tattoo, and Mama Lucy with her .38 Smith and Wesson.

Pick is a problem too. He's constantly calling other men "hoss" and arguing with Yankees about the Civil War. And he's got a temper like a yard dog. He pounds his colleagues, mouths off at his cousins, sasses his grandmother, chews out casual acquaintances and punches holes in screen doors. What's worse, he follows these outbursts with pathetic periods of remorse.

Pick is like one of those Richard Ford characters who's always admitting his faults as a way of getting around correcting them. All these men really want is to sound endearingly incorrigible. Whenever Pick isn't beating somebody senseless, he's blushing his way through compliments to his extraordinary talents or remarking on the sensitivity lurking behind his rage. He's an entertaining cuss, but half the time you wish he'd go sit on the side porch and chew his corn pone quietly. One thing's for sure: Compared to Pick, Allan Gurganus' character is a sweetheart.

"There's a serpent in every garden and a Judas at every supper," an encyclopedia salesman and erstwhile preacher once told me. I was writing a story about Durham's drug trade at the time, and the salesman was telling me how his nephew, the product of a prosperous and happy family, had secretly used family money to support his habit. "There's not one of us that'll speak to him anymore. The serpent is selfish, taking what he needs."

That's what writers do, too. I've always liked Joan Didion's preface to Slouching Toward Bethlehem, in which she explains that, as a journalist, she is so physically diminutive and so seemingly incompetent, people forget that her presence runs counter to their best interests. "And it always does," she writes. "That is one last thing to remember: Writers are always selling somebody out."

Framing Mama Lucy's Depression-era history with contemporary life in Eno, N.C., Marlette does some serious selling. His primary victim is Eno, N.C., a thinly veiled Hillsborough, which he labels the Triangle's "hottest, hippest place" to live (a duplicitous compliment if I ever heard one). "Today," Marlette writes, "you catch a whiff not of the cotton mill culture but of the leftover hippie counterculture, as artists and craftsmen, potters, chefs and masseuses and other assorted granolas from the sixties who found their way to off-the-beaten-path communities like Eno in hopes of creating their own Woodstock nation now live and work and play, informed by a baby-boomer television sitcom idea of small town innocence and community--an acid flashback of Mayberry."

Not exactly an affectionate tribute, though Hillsborough has in the last decade or so become a self-made target of sorts--a literary beehive populated by prominent writers who moved into the crumbling old mansions and set about fraternizing and throwing exquisite fetes, tending each other like cherished gladioli. It's hardly surprising that someone would come along to make game of the town and its celebrated residents. What surprises is that these residents--the writers in particular--would be so caught off guard by one of their own. That no one anticipated a Judas who would detach himself from the feast.

As for Allan Gurganus, I have never met nor spoken to the man, but I understand he is a gentle and generous soul. (A friend of mine said she sat on his front porch one summer afternoon and Gurganus kept snatching mosquitoes out of the air to keep them from biting her.) Ruffin Strudwick, the character inspired (in part, Marlette stresses) by Gurganus, is harmless enough, but as belle of the town he is a malevolent priss. The kind of man who brings adversaries together over a pitcher of martinis and stands back to watch the fireworks.

Last summer, after reading an advance copy of The Bridge, an unhappy Gurganus asked Marlette's publisher to remove him from the acknowledgments page of the book. The manager of Bull's Head Bookshop, a close friend of Gurganus', canceled a reading, claiming The Bridge was homophobic. Other bookstores wavered in their commitments to publicize the book. Nasty reviews appeared on Amazon.com and Marlette got a sinister, and sinisterly anonymous, poem in the mail.

Firecrackers were popping all right, but for months they were muffled beneath the bell jar of Small Town. "These people didn't want to air their dirty secrets and their cat fights," said one journalist, who heard about Marlette's troubles from a mutual friend. "It was like a plantation secret."

Gradually, over the course of the fall, the story leaked, but by then nearly everyone was jockeying for more tactful positions. Gurganus assured reporters that he believed in the First Amendment; the Bull's Head manager retracted her charge of homophobia and replaced it with a less flammable charge of "murky" writing. Amazon.com pulled the nasty reviews. The troubled waters were calmed, but the faint scent of cat piss still hung in the air. And that's where The Bridge stands now, trying to fly straight in the turbulent wake of vituperation.

Early in The Bridge, Pick Cantrell describes himself as outwardly unthreatening--"open-faced, and harmless, like some Sunbelt Rotarian." Inside, he feels like an "assassin." What else can a writer feel? The world does not deliver itself to the branding hands of a novelist; it must be wrestled to the dirt. And all of it--family, friends, innocent children--all of it is fair game. No aware person, living in range of a working novelist, can ever really breathe easy.

One Hillsborough resident I talked to laughed at the "plantation secret" analogy, then made me take a solemn vow not to print her name. The truth, she said, is that whenever writers choose to live in proximity to one another, whether in a summer-long fellowship or as permanent residents of a small town, the situation has a Donner Pass feel to it. "Writers are meat-eaters, you know. And if you're any good at it you have to put aside pity--even for your friends."

I told her it made me think of the story of the frog who rides across the river on the snout of a crocodile. The crocodile is a delightful companion, but in the end he is a crocodile. "Yes, that's it," the woman said. "What I always hope is that my neighbors are well-fed." EndBlock

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