Tidewater Review - March 2009

One for the Heart: One for the Funny Bone


Anne Stinson

The Night Blooming Cereus and Other Stories by Harold O. Wilson. 164 pages. $24.95.
    Stop the presses! Break out the fireworks! Salute a great new talent in literature!
    Why, you may ask, is this book critic sitting at the computer in her bare feet? She’s just had her socks knocked off, stunned by the work of a first-time work of fiction by a brand new writer on the scene. It’s comparable to finding a big gold nugget in your backyard when you only expected to plant a petunia.
    The discovery of a stunningly fine writer in our midst is a fantastic event. Hal Wilson, who lives on Kent Island, published this book himself, so modest he didn’t think a publishing house would be interested in his novella and several short stories in a small volume.
    The book jacket, designed by a daughter-in-law, is gorgeous, drawing instant attention to the marvels inside the pages. Against a mountain scene of a weathered shed in black-and-white photography, a full-color 1934 Dodge coupe wraps around the book cover, its red chassis and black fenders over white-wall tires with their wheel spokes painted bright yellow. It’s a chariot that carries two spinster sisters into a story of their life in the backwoods.
    Fannie and Florence are the rod and sword of this tale full of grief, rape, evil from unexpected sources and the resilience — nay, gutsiness of women.
    The title story is prefaced by a quote from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The tragedy of the girls’ parents’ death in the car inspires the orphaned teenaged girls to paint the Dodge with settlement money awarded from the logging company responsible for the fatal accident. It could be a metaphor for defiance against disaster.
    The structure of the novella is a tapestry of different voices in different times. It teases with a puzzle whose voices weave the fascinating narrative as the sequence of events becomes clear. Each character emerges whole and vivid, as gripping as a movie at IMAX where the actors land in your lap, adding dark and light color to the account of quiet joy and quiet pain, justice and punishment.
    By page 86, the story has spun to a close after leapfrogging in time backward and forward from 1936 to 2007. The reader, like this one, may be breathless at the magic of Wilson’s talent and close the book to digest the feast of words before plunging ahead. There are five short stories still to come.
    The Chosen, a mere eight pages long, is a microcosm of the same stunning power and awe at the pitiless heritage of a cruel legacy. Pause to breathe, readers.
    Tea at Four changes the scene and tone entirely with brittle amorality. Oh my God! Go for a walk, readers, before going on.
    Infidelity is like a naughty boy’s guilty dream. It would be wicked to give away the plot. Suffice it to say it could make you yearn to take a nap on an airplane.
    Caesar’s Tomb opens with sentences so perfectly crafted they make the reader gasp, swallow and go back for another quaff. In this one, a minister is called on to calm a suicidal Vietnam vet. The opening sentences set the tone of a life interrupted with these images: “Winter has set in. The bony fingers of the trees picked at the edges of the slate on the gray roof with soft irregular scraping.” A ringing telephone shatters the lamp light of sleepy serenity. Faith takes a beating in the twists of this crisis.
    Blood of the Lamb, the final short story, is set on a hardscrabble farm in north Florida for a shocking event, hinted at but not revealed until the end of this tale of sorrow, deprivation and rage in which the main character, Ben, says, “Jesus ain’t done nothing for me.” The curse of primitive backwoods preaching sticks like a fish bone in the throat.
    Night Blooming Cereus and Other Stories is no amateur writer’s timid effort. I cannot overstate the greatness of this book. It blew me away.
    It left me shaken by its beauty and compassion, its insight into the tough, gentle hearts of an isolated region of the south. I was enthralled by the richness of the writing. It made me feel as excited at its discovery as the first acquisitions editor must have been when the manuscript of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird landed on his desk.
    Wilson’s book is a masterpiece. It’s almost a marker for this critic to retire. Nothing so wonderful is ever likely to come my way again.
    Buy a copy. Have it autographed by the author and cherish a first edition. In my judgment, this book qualifies Wilson for literary fame.

I LIKE YOU: Hospitality Under the Influence by Amy Sedaris. Grand Central Publishing Trade Paperback. 304 pp. $15.95.
    Here’s a reprint in paperback of a New York Times best-seller that had wannabe fabulous hostesses in the Big Apple giggling and following advice by Amy Sedaris, a comedian, actress and writer. Frankly, I’d never heard of her before I read this book. No wonder. The author travels in waaaay different circles, assuming that mid-Shore folks don’t publicly admit that they have “a dealer.”
    That said, brace yourself for a romp that’s sassy, outrageous, off-putting, offensive, raunchy and smart alecky. It’s also filled with classy photos of food and recipes for all your party needs.
    Ms. Sedaris is never at a loss for ways to have fun in her small apartment in New York. Neither is she stumped for ways to decorate the table, the food, or the walls. She has bold signs and drawings posted on her door to raise the excitement levels and whet the appetites of her varied categories of guests.
    As an unmarried woman living alone – that’s not counting her pet rabbit and the ghost of her imaginary boyfriend, Ricky – she even includes a party plan for children. Kids’ parties are useless before the child is age five, she writes. Anyone younger is too little to understand the concept of gifts. To make her point, she says she could wrap a head of cabbage and give it to a two-year-old and he wouldn’t know the difference.
    By all means, send kids’ invitations in the mail. All kids love to get mail. And set a time limit for the festivities. She recommends from 2 to 2:30. Half an hour is plenty because you’ll be worn out in that time span, even if they won’t.
    Decorate the food, preferably in something funny/scary. The photo has hamburgers and potato chips on a red plate. The tops of the hamburger rolls have silly faces with olive slices for eyes, an olive lump for a nose and a pimiento slash of red mouth.
    For older kids, she recommends a list of games, none of which (in my judgment) would keep preteens interested for more than a nanosecond. But wait – she’s just getting cranked up on the subject. Slightly older kids would love a mock cocktail party, she says, and tells how to color clear soda to make it fun: yellow food coloring for scotch, green for creme de menthe, etc. It’s all part of a Play Grown-Up theme, with suggestions unfit for a family magazine.
    Moving right along, in the event a host asks a group of lumberjacks to lunch, special rules are required. “Lumberjacks are no-nonsense. Never serve appetizers. Like brown bears fresh from hibernation,” she writes, “they can become confused and agitated when not fed quickly.”
    All food should be on one plate or in one big bowl, bread may be used as a utensil and “be polite when requesting they remove their cleats, but be prepared if they don’t,” she adds. If one of them is celebrating a birthday, she suggests gift ideas, including underpants and a harmonica and neck support for it.
    For us rubes, I would advise skipping the chapter on Cooking Under the Influence. She’s not limiting it to potent potables, so be warned. It goes way beyond my favorite caution when my girls were learning to cook – Never fry bacon when wearing a bikini. Don’t ask.
    And so it goes, with plans for a rich uncle’s visit, or an after-the-theater party and a list of tactful conversation if your guests are cast members from the night’s performance. Actors are insecure, touchy, nervous and will likely stay for hours until the morning reviews of the previous night. She also has a list of no-nos in case you go backstage to shmooze with imminent party guests who are on an emotional high and near hysterics.
    Never at a loss for a chance to have a whoop-de-doo, there’s also a chapter on hospitality for the grieving with a very good list of things to say and things you should steer away from when consoling the bereaved. There’s also the admonition to be aware that crooks read the obituaries and will note the funeral time to break into your house and steal things. Hire a house-sitter with a gun to be on the safe side. Or does that only apply to New York?
    Don’t even ask about having a Ladies’ Night party. It’s wickedly funny.
    Most of the second half of the book is devoted to recipes, many written with chatty twists and digs, but substantial and delicious-looking and sounding dishes, ditto the photographs. Ms. Sedaris leans heavily on Greek cuisine, with lots of olives, olive oil, feta cheese and red wine in everything except cake, and enough chicken recipes to keep Perdue in business in perpetuity. The miscellaneous section reflects the polyglot population of her home town, zigging and zagging through oysters, lox, Yorkshire pudding and hush puppies in a veritable whirl of ethnic delicacies.
    The merry parade ends with a section on crafts and what fun they are to make, although it’s unlikely any normal reader is going to get enthusiastic about making a plant hanger out of pantyhose. A slapdash account of making a calf stretcher (for your legs, not for a barnyard animal) may be of interest, although most readers have most likely never felt the need.
    The book concludes with an excellent index for recipes and a befuddled feeling that this reviewer has had a sheltered life.