Monday, December 20, 2010

(No.128) Does God look like Mayor Binwanger?

Browsing in a cruise ship library I came across a 1985 novel, North Gladiola, by an American author of literary fiction James Wilcox. He is the author of nine novels, the first and his best known (Modern Baptists) was published in 1983 and the most recent, Hunk City, in 2007.

Wilcox, who is now a professor at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, was born in Louisiana and his novels are set in or feature characters from the fictional setting of Tula Springs, Louisiana located near the border with the state of Mississippi.

James Wilcox is a talented writer of comedy of manners and a very funny creator of the whimsical and the complicated. As I remember it one of my earliest experiences of laughing out loud because of what I was reading in a novel involved Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Sadly, in the subsequent decades of my reading novels I have not had that experience nearly as often as I would have liked. Happily one of those times came while reading North Gladiola.

The book's plot revolves around Ethyl Mae Coco, a Mississippi native and a Baptist who converted on her marriage to Roman Catholicism but now at age 57 has become a secret doubter of her faith,. She is the mother of a brood of dysfunctional adult children as well as being a player in and the energetic leader of a local chamber music group called the Pro Arts Quartet. She wants to turn the Quartet into a cultural jewel of Tula Springs but their engagements tend to be playing at the openings of local restaurants. Her relations with the members of this group as well as with her husband and children are a major source of humour and animate the plot.

As the years have passed Mrs. Coco has developed deep-seated religious doubts. As chairperson of the Rosary Altar Society Bake Sale, Wilcox writes, "it depressed her that she would have to stand outside Our Lady [Church] all day selling cakes for a God she wasn't sure she believed in. The trouble was, the more she thought about this God she had been praying to for so long, the more distinct His features became; to her dismay she discovered that He bore a striking resemblance to [Tula Springs] Mayor Binwanger .... Of course, she realized this was absurd, but when she tried to banish this image there was nothing but a vague, beardlike cloud to take its place."

Even after they have novels published writers of literary fiction very often struggle financially to make a living from working as full time novelists. James Wilcox certainly did when he lived and worked in New York City. There is a fascinating article in The New Yorker magazine (July 4,1994) "Moby Dick in Manhattan" by James B. Stewart. It provides a close look at Wilcox's life as a novelist and his financial relationship with publishers.

One learns that the potential American market for a book of literary fiction published in hardcover is not only very far from being in the hundreds of thousands of copies typical of popular fiction bestsellers but distant from even (for most) sales of tens of thousands of copies. Indeed a recognized and critically successful novelist like Wilcox struggled in New York to live off publishers' advances and royalties from his novels. In 2004 he began teaching creative fiction at LSU back in his home state (he is 61).

James Wilcox's novels are still in print, a signal achievement these days for a writer of literary fiction. He is a fine novelist. His clever, witty and accomplished writing deserves to be widely read and enjoyed.

As for North Gladiola, for me it was truly refreshing -- like a cool drink on a hot day. I intend to read his other novels.


the novels by James Wilcox:

1. Modern Baptists (1983) 8 editions

2. Polite Sex (1991) 3 editions

3. Sort of Rich (1989) 4 edtions

4. Plain and Normal (1998) 3 editions

5. Guest of a Sinner (1993) 4 editions

6. Miss Undine's Living Room (1987) 4 editions

7. North Gladiola (1985) 4 editions

8. Heavenly Days (2003) 4 editions

9. Hunk City (2007) 5 editions


Alastair Rickard