Southern Roots: Two New Books Evoke Virginia in Fiction and Memoir

It’s said the great thing about a small town is that, if you don’t know what you’re doing, someone else does.

Two new books from Virginia-born authors echo this sentiment with themes of small-town childhoods and Southern manners. But, most of all, they call to mind a sense of place that will ground readers in Virginia’s rich landscape.

If you can get past the title, a Neil Young song reference, Ed Tarkington’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” will treat you to a satisfying coming-of-age story set in the fictional central Virginia town of Spencerville in the ’70s and ’80s.

Rocky idolizes his older half brother, a chain-smoking, record-obsessed cool kid, but Paul disappears with a high-school girlfriend. Rocky is left to navigate first love, family trauma, loss and a gruesome crime that shocks the town. The book warms up as it goes, drawing you into a thick familiarity and warmth.

Tarkington, who grew up in Lynchburg, peppers the novel with adult insights and humorous turns. Rocky gets himself expelled from private school through indecent, lovingly crafted graffiti. Once, he comes home to a group of adults in his living room sharing secrets and chardonnay.

“Apparently it’s not sinful to gossip about people so long as you are praying for them,” he writes.

The book’s flaws are minor, an uneven voice and a few descriptions of women best left in the ’70s by the narrator who is looking back. Also, the role of the book’s only black character leaves an odd taste in my mouth. But, a debut novel, “Only Love” introduces an exciting new regional writer.

Try to read it with the memoir of Southern literary stateswoman Lee Smith, “Dimestore: a Writer’s Life.” She paints a vivid memory of coal country and her father’s dime store in the very real Grundy — so hemmed in by hills that light didn’t reach their yard till 11 a.m.

Hers is a story of learning to write, first of “orphans, evil twins, fashion models, and alternative universes.” College encounters with Eudora Welty and James Still help her find a voice and drive home professorial urgings to “write what you know.”

Smith writes that her mother threw her first novel into the river. “‘Everyone in this town is going to think I ran off with a man,’ my mother said,” referring to the fictional plot of the book.

Now the author of 17 novels and short-story collections, Smith tells tales of her life that sound familiar, like a journey down the Mississippi River on a raft in college, her “wild girl days,” which found its way into “The Last Girls,” her best-selling 2002 novel.

She writes candidly and heartbreakingly of her parents’ and her son’s struggles with mental illness, and of changes that come to her corners of the South. A visit to Grundy’s new three-story downtown Wal-Mart is an experience both disquieting and reverential.

A chapter on opening a sushi restaurant in Carrboro, North Carolina, with her husband becomes a meditation on the “new South” and new Southern literature. In the legacy of Welty and Flannery O’Connor, Smith has earned her place there — with this book a welcome addition. S


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