Home > Book Reviews, James Whorton Jr > Book Review – Approximately Heaven by James Whorton, Jr.

Book Review – Approximately Heaven by James Whorton, Jr.

I hadn’t heard of James Whorton or his novel Approximately Heaven before I picked it up, but now I’m glad I did.  The book set me back all of one dollar at a library discard sale here in Northam, and the book is in pretty much mint condition. I think I was sold on the cover, and also on the notion that this might be somewhat similar to the work of Harry Crews. I’ve read a lot of books by Americans over the years, but I guess not too many by Southern writers, and it seems I’m developing a taste for them. I found that while Approximately Heaven isn’t quite up to the standard of Crews at his best, it is a highly readable and entertaining novel.

The book is about a guy named Don, who also seems to go by the name of Wendell. He has a wife named Mary and a run-down old house in Washington Country, Tennessee.  Don is an out of work electrician with a beaten up pickup truck and a habit of screwing things up. He’s a bit of a loser at life, and at the beginning of the novel Mary is leaving him. What follows, for the most part, is an off-beat road trip Don takes with an old man called Dove who actually reminds me a little of what I imagine Harry Crews must be like in his seventies.  Don doesn’t really know what’s going on for most of the book, and it turns out that Dove is usually two or three steps ahead of him. I got a laugh out of several situations in the first half, and for that I am appreciative. I always need something to laugh about.

There’s a lot of drinking in the novel. Don drinks more beer in a few days than I’d drink in several weeks, and I like to drink beer. He does a fair bit of wandering around and there’s even a part where he nearly cheats on his wife (fair enough given that she’s said she’s leaving him). But the real hero of this novel, to my mind, is not so much Don as Dove. Dove is a real character: gnarled, bad, and somewhat suicidal. He keeps trying to give Don $23,000, which Don keeps finding ways of giving back. That infuriated the hell out of me. I’d have just taken the money. Why doesn’t anyone want to give me $23,000?

There’s not much in the way of a climax to this book, although it’s true that there’s a situation that seems for a while like it might end in a shooting. But it doesn’t and Dove ends up selling his house to Don and Mary for $100. And it seems Mary has put leaving Don on the back burner by novel’s end, as their old house is being burned down (deliberately, by them). So I guess it’s a happy ending. So while Approximately Heaven was certainly a breezy, highly readable book, I feel that this is something missing here. Much of the book seems pointless and rambling, even if it does give us an insight into the way Don sees life. I guess I’m saying that in the end I didn’t feel that this was a great novel, or Whorton a great writer (but this is only his first published book, so I expect he can do better next time). Turns out Whorton has one other novel to his credit, a book called Frankland. I’m keen to read it, even if I do have to spend more than a dollar on it.

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