Many tributaries add to flow of 'River'

March 16, 1993|By Joan Mooney | Joan Mooney,Contributing Writer

Imagine sitting on one of those front porches that every house in the South seems to have, listening to a small-town policeman tell the story of the town's bizarre murder case a few years back.

That's the novel "Cry Me a River," written in T. R. Pearson's distinctive style, borrowed from the speech of the South: sarcasm, understatement, formal diction, all exaggerated for comic effect to the point of intentional parody. It takes a little getting used to, but Mr. Pearson obviously listens to people talk and absorbs their way of looking at the world.

The narrator is a likable character -- a seeming anomaly, a contemplative cop. He's no intellectual -- he spends his evenings trying to get a decent picture on his broken TV and reading the beauty and car magazines sent to his apartment for the former tenants, who were evicted. But he says himself that he thinks too much, anxious to find complicated motives in what are simply acts of passion.

He has a deadpan way of recounting outlandish events, and there are plenty. The main one is the murder of his fellow officer, Wendle, which we find out about on Page 2 when the narrator discovers a piece of Wendle's scalp hanging on a sticker bush.

Although the narrator has a recurring fantasy of getting ignominiously shot in the line of duty, he figures it would be while stopping someone for a traffic violation, since his workday usually consists of writing traffic tickets and breaking up bar fights.

In telling the story of the murder, the narrator goes off on myriad tangents; at times the whole book appears to be a shaggy dog story. But it's not a distraction, since the side stories and subplots are as important as the main one.

Mr. Pearson gives us the full panoply of contemporary small-town Southern life. There are his fellow officers: Dewey, who was fond of hoodlum dangling (suspended by their ankles) until the practice was stopped when an out-of-towner discovered him; the chief, who is honored at a conference in Charlotte, N.C., when he gives a speech about the glories of Mace; and Ellis, not actually a policeman but a lush whose sister has asked local officers to let him ride in patrol cars with them to keep out of trouble.

We meet Gooch, the combination medical examiner-undertaker-embalmer-cemetery owner, and Mr.Shumate, a Department of Transportation foreman who writes free verse, reviled by the local paper as leftist. We learn of the adulterous union between two fat, middle-aged townspeople, the gay couple mating in the woods, the rich families who live in big houses up on the hill, and the ever-present undercurrent of sex and liquor.

In a small town like this, it's not hard to track people down. A single photo is enough to help the narrator solve the mystery, when he finds the woman in the photo buying kitchenware at the Wal-Mart.

What makes Mr. Pearson even better is that he's not just funny; he shows a real understanding of the people he writes about. Without pushing a conclusion at us, he makes us think about the cold-blooded desire for control that lay behind a supposed crime of passion, the lack of imagination with which many people live their lives, and the way people often see themselves only as others see them.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Cry Me a River." Author: T. R. Pearson.

Publisher: Henry Holt.

Length, price: 258 pages, $22.

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