Task: Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location.
Ugh. This book. Here we go.
So, Donald Harington is the Arkansas novelist (but props to Charles Portis) – not only is he himself an Arkansan, but his Stay More series is set in a fictional Ozark town called Stay More (Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks is the best known of the set), just south of Jasper in Newton County and easily within 100 miles of my house here in Fayetteville. His work positively drips Arkansas, and while he isn’t the best known novelist in the world, he’s definitely the name to bring up if you want to appear cultured and with-it in this particular state.
I’d read Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks a long time ago, and was happy enough to return to Stay More for Lightning Bug, the first of the Stay More cycle.
Lightning Bug has a number of commendable qualities. It plays with perspective, tense, and format to get at a hallucinatory dream state where multiple accounts of events play out simultaneously, contradicting each other without being contradictory. It’s also raunchy as anything, sometimes hilariously so (“Some people keep a lot of cats because they like cats, but Latha kept cats because she liked to watch them fuck. I know this for a fact.”) and sometimes awfully off-puttingly so (a virgin is colloquially defined as “a five year old who can outrun her daddy and her brothers”).
The book is written in pretty heavy Ozark dialect (“I’d whup the shit out of ye so fast thet you’d think ye was a freshed up stable”), which is jarring when you’re used to your region being a never-ending source of folksy backwoods stereotypes. I did wind up enjoying the dialect (which is hard for me), even though I never quite got over my discomfort. It was fun, playful, and while I can’t vouch for its authenticity (the dialect is based on Harington’s memories of childhood summers spent in Drake’s Creek as a child, which isn’t exactly deeply lived experience or careful linguistic study), at least it didn’t read as condescending or insulting.
There are some wonderful characters on the sidelines, like the bootlegger Luther Chism who purportedly has a revenuer chained up in his barn while he tries to figure out what to do with him. There’s also bad blood between the local boys and the WPA boys, which leads to massive brawls in front of the post office. The narrator is Dawny, a grown man reminiscing on the summers he spent in Stay More, where at the age of five he fell passionately in love with postmistress Latha Bourne, who Dawny nicknames Lightning Bug.
Dawny’s affection for Latha is uncomfortably erotically charged given his age, and there’s a tough scene involving the pair of them sleeping naked. This I could deal with. Latha, the protagonist, is very sexually adventurous, and spins out fantasies involving just about every man she meets (not all of them are particularly satisfying for her). This is also fine by me; I’m perfectly happy with a female protagonist with zero shame or guilt about her desires and a healthy interest in sex. There’s even a scene of wildly consensual anonymous sex at a water hole that’s positively thrilling for how engaged and in control Latha is of the action. And she’s not the one moping around trying to turn a very clearly negotiated one-time-only tryst into a marriage afterward. Points awarded.
What is not thrilling is when the main narrative twists from Latha’s conquests to the return of Every Dill. In the past, Every raped her not once, but twice, although only the first incident is referred to as a rape in the novel. And that is tonally upsetting, since Latha appears to start enjoying the assault in the middle of it, even though she refers to it as a rape and a violation throughout the rest of the book. The second assault is almost worse in that it’s never treated as such. Every has just busted Latha out of a mental institution and has sex with her while she’s unconscious. It’s written in flowery prose suggesting high romance, and even the first violent incident is written distressingly like a meet-cute.
It’s not romantic and it’s not sexy. It’s gross, it’s boring, and it’s lazy. The casual unexamined misogyny of both assaults soured the whole book for me. It probably wouldn’t have made me so mad if there hadn’t been so much else to like. Especially given how in command Latha was otherwise of her sexuality. If there was ever a female character ready to say oh hell no when her rapist appears after several years in an attempt to woo her back, it should have been Latha. But instead we get what’s presented as a sweetly romantic happy ending. Every never even apologizes to her. No, thank you.