Southern crime novel sees snakes on the plain
by Rob Neufeld
Belle Spier, plantation owner’s wife, has died; and Frances Finnegan “Finn” Butler, who’d become her foster child after his parents had abandoned him years ago, is driving the three Spier daughters to the gravesite.
The proximity of the golf course to the cemetery had once amused the late “Judge” Spier, “several of whose friends,” Finn muses, “had collapsed conveniently near the burial plots they had chosen with care, as if their spirits might gaze eternally upon those whose strokes were not, at least not yet, as fatal as their own had been.”
The ironic sensibility of the semi-outsider in the old-family South is an intoxicating flavor in Brookhouse’s fiction. It smacks of Leo King in Pat Conroy’s “South of Broad”; Frank Bascombe in Richard Ford’s “Independence Day”; and, most of all, Binx Bolling in Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer.”
There are some distinctive and noteworthy features in Brookhouse’s work, “Finn” being his sixth novel, and the first offering in the “Southern Crime Series” of Safe Harbor Press.
The crimes that take place in the town of Sprite, which one local sign effacer changes to “Spite,” are as slithery as snakes in an opened cage. Still, in crime fiction form, the novel has to collect them up at the end.
The town’s transgressions have a lot to do with a good ol’ boy power structure, and with sex. You just have to accept the fact that in Tennessee Williams country, power and sex operate at a viral level. Brookhouse is not explicit about it, but he is adamant. A valuable folk artist’s painting of a cocky rooster keeps popping up as a coveted talisman.
American Indian themes also keep appearing, as if Brookhouse is expiating a wide range of sins.
Henry Broken-ground, Finn’s neighbor in a trailer park, plays many key roles, fulfills his own story arc, and is legendary. He can actually charm snakes.
When we reflect that the Spier mansion is called Red Sticks, we can’t help but note that that was the group name pinned on the rebellious Creeks who exemplified Indian resistance to the U.S. at its most violent level.
The struggle for Finn—and by struggle, I don’t mean agony; he’s able to shrug as well as sleuth—leads toward decency, including the beginning of a solution to rampant racism in town. And it all happens in 114 pages, thanks to Brookhouse’s great talent of writing sentences that throw a little extra information into each exposition.
Chris Brookhouse presents his novel, “Finn” (Safe Harbor Press) at Captain’s Bookshelf, 31 Page Ave., Asheville, 5:30 to 7 p.m., today, May 26. (253-6631).