Author: Lee Smith
Publisher: Blair, an imprint of Carolina Wren Press
Price: $15.95 (paper)
It is a great pleasure to have another fiction from Lee Smith, even if it is, as she says in her afterword, somewhat autobiographical. She writes: “I have always felt that I can tell the truth better in fiction than nonfiction. Real life is often chaotic, mysterious, unfathomable…. But in fiction you can …instill some sort of order to create meaning, so that the story will make sense.”
Smith is a professional and, after 17 books, certainly knows her business, but I will disagree to this extent: her memoir “Dimestore,” nonfiction, the story of her childhood in Grundy, Virginia, her parents’ mental health problems and her son’s death, was as coherent and emotionally moving a book as I have ever read.
“Blue Marlin” is much less somber, with a strong element of the comic that is Lee Smith’s trademark.
Told in recollection by Jenny Dale, the story covers events in the years 1958-1959, when she was 13 and 14 years old.
Jenny is a wonderful creation: bright, willful, adventurous, prematurely skeptical, a handful to manage. There is no meanness in her, but she can be disobedient when she feels her rights are being trampled. Jenny, like “Harriet the Spy,” goes around town on her bicycle, sometimes at night, observing everything that’s going on, even looking in people’s windows, and keeping a notebook.
At the edge of town lives vivacious Carroll Byrd—free spirit, artist, sculptor. Carroll Byrd wears men’s pants sometimes, and leotards, no makeup, and she planted vegetables in her front yard.
Jenny’s very proper mama declares “No lady has a vegetable garden and no person in their right mind would put such a garden in front of a nice house, anyway.”
Jenny herself is artistic; she wants to grow up to be a writer of best-selling “steamy novels” like Grace Metalious, author of “Peyton Place,” then give all her money to starving children, then win the Nobel Prize. THEN she would “become a vegetarian poet in Greenwich Village” and “live for art.”
Jenny spies on Carroll Byrd and thus the novel begins: “In 1958 when my father had his famous affair with Carroll Byrd … I knew it before anybody….”
Her life changed: “Now I was a girl whose father was having an affair—a tragic girl, a dramatic girl. A girl with a burning secret. Everything was different.”
Jenny’s mother is reputed to be one of the most beautiful women in Virginia and had been a belle in Charleston.
But Carroll Byrd is exotically different. It’s a small town so, of course, Jenny’s father is caught. Chaos ensues and after separation, confusion, and a lot of anguish—Mama drinks, Daddy sulks, Jenny is sent to live with colorful kinfolk—a counselor suggests a “geographical cure.” That is, Jenny and her mom and dad take a January vacation to Key West where they can relax and love can be rekindled.
It doesn’t go well at first and like many a youngster Jenny feels guilt and pressure. “They were trying to patch up their marriage for me and the only way to do it seemed to be through me.”
Fear not. “Blue Marlin” is not a tragedy. In Key West, Dina Merrill, Tony Curtis and Gregory Peck are filming “Operation Petticoat” and they are all staying at the same motel: The Blue Marlin.
Jenny and her mom are movie buffs and delight in watching and eavesdropping on the stars.
Even Daddy softens up and victory is achieved.
This is a warm, smart and thoroughly entertaining novel. Read it at once.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.