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Cathedrals of Kudzu:
A Personal Landscape
of the South

Hal Crowther
Louisiana State University Press
192 pp.



Hal Crowther is a rare animal. A personal essayist who is provocative as well as evocative. A man who can show us the beauty that is the South as well as point out its obvious (and sometimes not so obvious) flaws. He is, it seems, powerfully positioned to define what, precisely, that complicated thing called the South actually is. Pause for a second and think about the title of his new essay collection: Cathedrals of Kudzu. Kudzu: that pain-in-the-ass vine that was imported into the South and pretty much took over whatever it touched. In Crowther's metaphorical take, the vine has turned the Southern landscape into the profile of a haunted Gothic mansion, complete with spires and buttresses. It's a familiar Southern form, but at the same time it is new, imported and definitely suspect.

Nice image, huh?

He certainly casts a wide net. In these essays (many of which first appeared in The Oxford American magazine), Crowther passes his well-trained eye over Southern belles (remember them?), snake-handling religions, guns, dogs, fathers, trees and the remarkable Doc Watson. Never a wallflower when it comes to his opinions, Crowther is most passionate when he explores the life of James Dickey and tears at the constraints of political correctness.

This collection is decidedly more affectionate than Crowther's earlier Unarmed but Dangerous: Withering Attacks on All Things Phony, Foolish, and Fundamentally Wrong with America Today (which has been described as containing "something to offend just about everyone"). Cathedrals of Kudzu reads more like an appreciation of what the world was and could become. There is a grim reality in Crowther's musings on the decline of the small town, for instance, but these wonderful essays never fall into the maudlin 'look at how the world could be' vein. Time passes, and places change--even the South, no matter how much we kick and scream and try to hold onto everything that makes us what we are.

Not as cynical as Mencken (to whom he is often compared), Crowther can turn a phrase with the best of them, and the essays collected here are among his best.

--John Porter

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Never Too Late: A Prosecutor's Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case
Bobby DeLaughter
315 pp.


In October 1989, twenty-six years after civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot to death in his driveway, an article in a Jackson, Mississippi, newspaper implied that the jury in the second of two murder trials brought unsuccessfully against Evers's accused killer had been tampered with. Inevitably, public reaction to the article divided into two camps, with one side demanding that the district attorney bring the case against Byron De La Beckwith to trial a third time, and the other saying that too much time had passed to drag the community through a divisive trial that was unlikely to yield a conviction.

As Bobby DeLaughter, who was the assistant district attorney in Jackson when the Evers case re-emerged in 1989, points out in his emotionally gripping account of his (successful) prosecution of Beckwith, the case initially seemed to offer a lose-lose proposition for the D.A.'s office.


We say that no man is above the law; but what if he is seventy years old? We claim that we value all human life; but what if the life is that of a civil rights activist in 1963 Mississippi? There is no statute of limitations for murder; but what if it's been a quarter century? In pursuing justice and maintaining freedom, how much taxpayer money is too much? Finally, if justice has never been finalized in such a despicable and immoral atrocity and pursuing it will open an old wound, instead of continuing to fester over the years, spreading its poison to future generations?


Against political and legal advice, DeLaughter decided to re-open the case, but he had his hands full: the physical evidence-the gun, the bullet and the police photographs-were missing, as was a transcript of the trial. And, to make matters worse, no one was sure if the jurors and witnesses were even alive. While some of the evidence was recovered (the murder weapon showed up in an astonishingly unlikely place), the case never proved easy, emotionally or strategically. "No matter which way I turned," DeLaughter writes, "I lost. If any supporters were in our corner, they certainly didn't let us know about it. The only one who had instilled in me a genuine desire to do anything for the right reason was Myrlie Evers [Medgar's widow]."

Of course, as most of DeLaughter's readers will know (as well as anyone who saw the movie The Ghosts of Mississippi, in which Alec Baldwin portrayed DeLaughter), he did in fact win a murder conviction against Beckwith, but he still manages to make the story of the investigation and trial feel fresh and even suspenseful. The late Mississippi writer Willie Morris had encouraged DeLaughter to write this book, and it's easy to see why: DeLaughter's characters are particularly well-drawn, his writing voice is wonderfully Southern, and he has a knack for making a scene come dramatically alive through strong, often funny dialogue. Perhaps most importantly, though, DeLaughter lends his story an emotional intensity that comes, it seems, from two sources: his strong belief that Medgar Evers and his family deserved redress and his equally strong sense that his state's reputation was bettered by the Beckwith guilty verdict.

Highly recommended for both its suspense and moral / ethical elements.

--Woody Arbunkle

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The Elementary Particles
Michel Houellebecq
Alfred A. Knopf
264 pp.



In The Elementary Particles, Michel Houellebecq looks at humanity from the large end of the telescope: even as he scrutinizes his characters' most intimate traits, they seem small and distant.

The novel tells the story of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, who find themselves ignored by their mother; a flower child of the 1960s, she is preoccupied with the pursuit of what used to be called free love. Houellebecq suggests it's not free at all: her children pay the price. Separate threads of the novel follow Michel and Bruno, who are raised apart. Cold and loveless childhoods have their effect. Each brother is brilliant in his way; each has a scientific bent; and each is decidedly strange.

Bruno's inability to relate to others comes out as sexual perversion; obsessed with sex, he loses a teaching job after exposing himself to one of his teenaged students. Michel grows up cold, unable to connect with people, uninterested in sex; when a beautiful woman expresses her love for him, he rejects her with little more than a vague sense of disquiet.

The story of the brothers, Houellebecq suggests, is the logical result of the me-first, pleasure-first philosophy of the '60s. There is a fin de siecle exhaustion about these brothers, as if they, and humanity, have burned out, reached the end of the line.

Houellebecq portrays the humiliations of their childhoods with abstract coldness. In describing Bruno's degradation at a private school (his schoolmates have forced his head into a toilet), the author makes this detached observation: "While dominance and brutality are commonplace in the animal kingdom, among higher primates, notably the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), weaker animals suffer acts of gratuitous cruelty. This tendency is at its greatest in primitive human societies and among children and adolescents in developed societies." The characters seem to be under the scrutiny of someone very, very far away.

The reason for the narrator's sense of distance is revealed in the last chapter. The novel was published in France two years ago to great acclaim, and Houellebecq may have anticipated this year's headlines when he has Michel pioneer a method of cloning that changes humanity. The reader is pretty tired of humanity too at this point and greets the prospect of momentous change not with anxiety, but with relief.

For all its detachment, the book gets preachy at times when it veers off into metaphysical discourse. "Every civilization has had to find some way to justify the sacrifices parents make," Michel tells his brother at one point. What a way to sum up a dysfunctional family, and a dysfunctional human race. And are they--are we--worth caring about? The answer is yes--but before we bring ourselves grudgingly to accept that humanity probably is worthwhile after all, Houellebecq makes us think long and hard.

--Arthur Alexander Parker

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Ordinary Horror
David Searcy
230 pp.



The title of David Searcy's Ordinary Horror (remarkably, his first novel) is as cunning as it is arresting. Where conventional (as opposed to ordinary, I suppose) horror novels are peopled by knife-wielding outsiders with obligatory bad childhoods, Ordinary Horror gives us a seventy-year-old widower named Mr. Delabano who likes to cultivate his rose garden and wouldn't hurt anything more evolved than the gophers that seem to be running rampant in his yard. And while the bizarre mail-order plants that Mr. Delabano buys to control the gophers seem initially to offer a standard-fare green monster run amok, Searcy is decidedly not Stephen King. In fact, literary fiction fans looking for an intelligently unnerving read should find him decidedly better than King.

Be forewarned, though: Searcy's proffered horror comes in such a complicated, compressed package that only through careful, close reading do we come to see how, precisely, the horror is seated in Mr. Delabano's 'ordinary' suburban setting. Without giving too much away, here are a few tantalizing clues. Mr. Delabano is, first and perhaps foremost, obsessed with divisions: fences that separate neighbors, the edge where suburban sprawl meets the prairie, the point twenty feet up where the house stops and space begins. On one side of the divide stands culture, of a sort; on the other, an abyss, of sorts. The prairie that lies beyond the suburban tract doesn't exactly represent entropy, but the sky above it (particularly at night) certainly seems to offer its fair share of agoraphobic horror--especially, Searcy writes, for "younger people whose gaze is less constrained and habitual, who are more likely to crane their necks to follow footballs or tossed children or, just hanging around outside at night, pay attention to the suddenness of the vertical transition between home and space." And it's this underlying sense of anxiety--unparticularized fear--that drives a good half of Ordinary Horror.

Horror, Searcy seems to imply, is truly horrific only if we can't define it merely as a fear of 'x' or 'y.' Take, for instance, the passage in which he describes Mr. Delabano's difficulty in recounting a terrifying incident to his wife: "It was hard for him to express, somehow, the obliqueness of the threat. What felt like the inevitability, perhaps. Unspecified, it became generalized and permanent....If he had actually seen something it would have been all right; his fear would have collapsed around it and it wouldn't have been a problem." (The great suspense-horror film producer Val Lewton had a similar notion and defied the Stephen Kings of his day--Frankenstein and the rest of his Universal brethren--by never showing the horrific subjects of his films.)

Though their tones are worlds apart, Ordinary Horror reminds me of Donald Antrim's The Verificationist in its magical suggestion that the laws that govern the ordinary world are merely accepted rules of behavior that might very possibly stop working if we simply stop accepting them. It's a mystical--even, perhaps, a Gnostic--notion that offers both horror and transcendence. Of course, Antrim's characters actually witness the world coming unhinged, while Searcy's Mr. Delabano merely gets unnerving revelations of its potential undoing. (Click here to read WAG's review of The Verificationist.)

There's a feverish, heady fecundity to Searcy's prose that makes it feel, at times, like a beautifully controlled short story, and the fact that Searcy manages to sustain narrative tension for the length of the novel is impressive.

Highly recommended.

--Charlie Onion

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