Monday, November 5, 2007

Gone Underground

After languishing for over a decade on my TBR list,I'd enjoyed Bastard out of Carolina. Seeing that Dorothy Allison had written several other books, I was determined to give one of them a whirl. I wound up with Cavedweller. I'm still not sure what to make of it.

I loved Bastard out of Carolina for its honest, unflinching look at both childhood and poverty, and for its vivid, complex characters. Cavedweller's characters were outstanding, but its aim less focused, its purpose less clear. It promises at first to be somewhat of a darker and more white trash version of the Reese Witherspoon movie Sweet Home Alabama: the main character, Delia, had run off to L.A. over a decade ago to seek her fortune as a singer and escape an abusive marriage. After the man she left home with dies in a motorcycle crash, she takes their daughter home to Georgia to reconcile with the two daughters she left behind when fleeing her marriage, and to face the rest of her old demons.

However, the tale doesn't stop there. I've read books that I felt took way too long to get to the point, 1000-page tales that could've been told in less than half of that. This is one of the only books I've read where the tale itself seems to spin out for far too long. Somewhere, the story stops belonging to Delia, and the disparate tales of her three daughters take over: Amanda, the religious fanatic who chooses early marriage and motherhood; the rebellious Dede, who sluts around and works a variety of jobs before settling down with someone most unexpected; and Cissy, the daughter from L.A., who finds herself at the bottom of the town's network of caves. Delia becomes barely a secondary character in her own story. Everything from her tale fades: her daughters grown, her abusive husband dead, the grandfather who raised her barely making an appearance.

If this was meant to be an epic, there's not enough "epic" here: barely any struggle in the lives of the girls, including the struggle to find themselves (they all seem pretty damn sure) or become a family (which they never really achieve: Dede and Cissy have a more friendlike relationship, while Amanda rejects the sinful duo in favor of her more godly church pals). It's a rather long denouement to what starts as an exciting tale, and only Allison's skill as a writer keeps you intrigued.

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