Goings-on in town make for humdinger of novel

August 15, 1993|By Mark Vosburgh | Mark Vosburgh,Orlando Sentinel

THE HARD TO CATCH MERCY William Baldwin Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 451 pages. $19.95 William Baldwin, a rural South Carolina shrimp-boat builder, -- house designer and historian, has --ed off a humdinger of a first novel in a spare 10 years, not counting the considerable time he spent being ignored by a slew of publishers and agents.

That Mr. Baldwin finally found a publisher through a chance encounter with a magazine editor while waiting to see a psychiatrist is quite the yarn, but not nearly as wild as "The Hard to Catch Mercy."

Set in tiny Cedar Point, S.C., a half century after the Tragic War for Southern Independence but before the town gets electricity, the story is about the coming of age of Willie T. Allson, grandson of a Confederate hero, and other goings-on.

Willie T. recounts his own story so he won't forget it. With 451 pages to fill and only a couple of years to cover, he feels obliged to recount a few things that his kin and other townsfolk might prefer not to remember:

We were no Clarksville, but Cedar Point still had sin aplenty. I couldn't name a murderer or a fornicator but I knew a great deal of wickedness, envy, deceit, and whisperings went on. We had them all. Backbiters, haters of God, the proud and the boastful, and children disobedient of their parents. Many needed to be prayed for. They had the Word and they had the Ten Commandments. But the preacher had to be on his toes because at any given minute, four to six of those Commandments were in the process of being broken.

Willie T.'s story actually begins with Ruth and Naomi, the Allson family's two milk cows. The cows -- and the story -- meander from the start. Ruth and Naomi get stranded on a sea island, so Willie T. must send for the title character.

The Hard to Catch Mercy is his name, as in Mercy, the Hard to Catch. A denizen of the Great Swamp, the Hard to Catch is known as far away as Cedar Point for his ability to track and corral stray livestock and other critters.

By name only, the Hard to Catch is the most odd of characters. Colonel Allson, Willie T.'s grandfather, spends his sane moments searching for a dowry presumably misplaced 50 years earlier in an attempt to hide it from the Yankees.

Maum Anna, a 7-foot-tall former slave whose Christian sensibilities are troubled by her own psychic powers, could reveal a few things about the dowry. The only problem is she is shrinking away.

By story's end, the 400 souls of Cedar Point still haven't seen the light of an incandescent lamp, but Willie T. has lost his faith, saved his skin, discovered the truth about the dowry and recaptured Ruth and Naomi.

If Mr. Baldwin builds as well as he writes, his shrimp boats must be unsinkable.

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