Scenes from Louise Shivers' smoldering little novel, Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail, remain so vivid in the mind that it is hard to believe it's been 20 years since its first publication. Upon re-reading it, in the anniversary edition released this year by John F. Blair, I found, though the setting has become archaic in two decades, the story retains its timeless power.
Shivers tells the story of a love triangle gone more wrong than usual, in the gentle, remote voice of protagonist Roxy Walston, a dreamy 20-year-old farmwife in the 1937 fictional Tar County, N.C. Roxy grew up in "Tarborough"--a town more like Wilson than the real Tarboro--where her father owns a funeral home, and where Roxy lives with her grandmother after her mother's early death. After the grandmother dies, Roxy, who can't bear to live with her stepmother and half-siblings, attracts the attention of Aaron, a young farm boy. Roxy and Aaron marry, then set up housekeeping on his family's land.
Aaron is one of those men who was born to farm--tobacco, of course--and the story should perhaps be called a love quadrangle, for Aaron's absorption with his crop soon allows room in Roxy's life for the attentions of Jack Ruffin, a red-headed stranger who appears in town. And although it is Roxy who becomes Jack's lover, it is Aaron who first befriends him and brings him home to play music and work the farm with him.
Shivers describes the mounting sexual tension between Roxy and Jack with a nuanced delicacy, and conveys the force of its inevitability. The word "tragedy" is bandied about thoughtlessly these days, but Shivers' tale is truly a tragedy, where loss and ruin come about not through evil intent or from random fate, but from the simple human longing for love and attention. The story infuses the reader's blood with the same narcotic desire that draws Jack, Aaron and Roxy to the deadly conclusion of the affair. From the first word, you know that ruin must ensue, but, like the characters, you are entranced and it feels too good to stop.
Simple little stories of messy love, longing, sex, and death will always be written, but there won't be many more set in the now vanished world of old-fashioned eastern North Carolina tobacco farms. Shivers records this world better than a box full of photographs. In tender, lyrical language, she gives us the rhythms of the work and the lilt of voices, the sights of town and country, the textures, the smells. In this passage, Roxy is on her way to the curing barn at the story's pivotal moment, where Jack tends the fires that burn day and night to toast the tobacco to bright-leaf gold.
"As I walked, I could see little sparks in the smoke going up into the night like drunk lightning bugs, and as I got near the barn the heavy, sweet smell of the curing tobacco hit my nostrils. I could almost taste it--the syrupy, musty smell like bodies making love in the heat. A drug in itself, just the smell of it."
Shivers' novel, too, is like a drug; a memory drug for those who've ridden through tobacco country in the summertime, and a drug to goad the imagination of those who haven't. Not many contemporary novels are worth the paper and ink to republish 20 years later, but this one surely is.