You have to understand that Loring, Mississippi, isn’t the kind of town people come back to, for any reason whatsoever. It is, in fact, the kind they leave. Very few of those I grew up with are still here…”–Steve Yarbrough’s Safe from the Neighbors
Steve Yarbrough’s Safe from the Neighbors is one of my favorite novels this year.
It is set in Loring, Mississippi, where his novel The End of California takes place. Yarbrough, the son of Mississippi Delta farmers and now a professor in the Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College, creates a vivid, fully-realized small Southern town that will remind us of other small towns in the U.S.
In Safe from the Neighbors, the narrator, Luke May, is a historian and a high school history teacher. He has tried to write, then abandoned, a book about a racial incident at the turn of the last century that caused Theodore Roosevelt to shut down the post office in Loring. He is also obsessed with the year 1962, when James Meredith was the first African-American to be admitted at Ole Miss (University of Mississippi); and Nadine, the sexy mother of his friend Maggie Calloway, was shot by her husband.
Although Luke likes teaching, he is in a limbo period of his life: his marriage to Jennifer, a poet, has soured. Yarbrough’s descriptions of marriage are hyper-realistic. While their twin daughters were growing up, Luke and Jennifer gradually ceased to make love. Now that the twins have gone to college, the marriage is still asexual. He observes,
I imagine similar circumstances prevail for many married couples, though it’s hard to say because people don’t talk about this subject unless sitting across a desk from somebody getting paid one hundred seventy-five dollar an hour to listen sympathetically and nod every thirty seconds.
Yarbrough often describes disillusionment with marriage. Sometimes marriages in his novels survive affairs, sometimes they don’t. In The Realm of Last Chances and The End of California, characters have affairs with varying results. In this novel the affair is tangled up with history.
When Luke’s old friend Maggie, now a widow, returns to Loring and works as a French teacher, it is not surprising that they have an affair. (The workplace is fraught with affairs, isn’t it?) He’d always loved her mother, Nadine, a tall former high school basketball star who hugged him and told him not to mess with her in athletics: she’d always win. Although Maggie’s father Arlan was arrested for killing Nadine, he was never indicted.
And so Luke is astonished that Maggie has moved back. He and Maggie mesh sexually: she tells him no one has made her feel that way except her late husband. And he tells her that he has never made anyone feel that way.
But you can’t have an affair in a small town. He doesn’t want to get caught.
The novel is also about history. Luke is haunted by his memories of a 1960s childhood; he conducts interviews to learn what really happened in 1962. His father, a farmer who later maintained school buses, was peripherally involved with Arlan Calloway in wanting to protest the desegregation of Ole Miss; Arlan takes a gun. Luke also learns the cause of the murder of Nadine Calloway.
I love contemporary novels filled with domestic details and descriptions of work. It is no coincidence that four of the six books on my Best of 2013 list (see sidebar) deal with modern life: the other two are a history/memoir about Cleopatra and a counter-factual novel. I read mainly older books, and I have a possibly inaccurate impression that most contemporary novelists are busy writing blockbuster historical novels: Wolf Hall, The Luminaries, Parrott and Olivier in America, Arthur and George, TransAtlantic, etc. These are mostly very good, but I read them with a different part of my brain.