Novels by James Whorton Jr, of which there are two in print (this and Approximately Heaven), make for easy and entertaining reading. I for one am quite fond of this author’s brand of quirky, off-beat humour. In my review of the aforementioned Heaven I noted that while Whorton’s tale was interesting and often amusing, there wasn’t much of a plot and what plot the book had tended to peter out somewhat toward the end. Well, you might say that Whorton has made a better fist of an actual plot this time around, but the main enjoyment for this reader came from the oddball situations our protagonist John H. Tolley gets into along the way. I suspect that that would be the main appeal of the book for most of its readers.
Tolley, somewhat like Don in Heaven, is a bit of a loser at life. He’s twenty-eight, something of a drifter, has high moral values and a beaten-up car that barely makes it twenty pages into the novel. (Unlike Don, however, Tolley is a teetotaler). One can’t help but suspect that these protagonists resemble the author himself, and thus I have a mental image of Whorton as a kindly but cranky, tall and gangly man. Tolley is in search of some lost documents relating to one of America’s more obscure presidents, one Andrew Johnson. It’s little wonder I hadn’t heard of him. We follow him on his quest through East Tennessee, an area where the author himself lives.
Along the way, Tolley encounters a variety of local characters. The novel’s dustjacket summarises these best: “Van Brun, the gravy-voiced academic in desperate need of a pedicure; McBain, the greens-eating New York newswoman; Boo Price, the neurotic ex-con (and coon ‘treer’ – I added that part); and Dweena, the brown-eyed, shy, and stoic mail carrier.” It’s a strong cast and one that provides most of the humour. There’s also a not-all-there parliamentarian and a couple more shady figures besides. I don’t know why I like reading about this sort of thing, but I do, and Frankland provides the flavour of rural America in generous measure.
Whorton’s work has been compared to that great American novel, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, but while I can see some basis for comparison, this author is considerably less angry at the world than Toole. His protagonist here in Frankland is gently critical of many of the happenings around him, but in subdued fashion. This could hardly be seen as a rant against society. In fact, Whorton’s work is gentle in the best sense of the world. There’s little if any violence in his work, which I appreciated.
The plot cranks along toward a comparatively fast-paced finale, but the scenes that will stay in my mind occur earlier. In particular, there’s a wonderfully sad scene in which Tolley arrives at Luke Van Brun’s university with high hopes of having an essay on Andrew Johnson published, only to discover that his work has been mistaken for that of someone else (there’s even mention of an extra-long footnote about pants, which got a laugh out of me). In the hands of a different author this scene would be depressing in the extreme (especially for readers with delusions of grandeur in terms of their own writing, such as myself), but Whorton never applies a blowtorch to our emotions. Frankland and this author’s earlier novel Approximately Heaven come recommended from me.
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.