Gearino's 'Blue Hole': rustic, lazy hippies

August 22, 1999|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff

"Blue Hole," by G.D. Gearino. Simon & Schuster. 224 pages. $22.

As author G.D. Gearino opens his third novel, he is clearly in the grip of an ailment endemic to far too much Southern fiction: cutesy and colorful writing. It is a malady generally marked by eccentric names -- "Baby Girl" and "Tallasee," to name two -- and by phrasing such as this one, describing the initial predicament of teen protagonist Charley Selkirk: "His food didn't taste good, his truck wouldn't run right, and he hadn't caught a fish in ages. Oh, and he was still a virgin, too."

Happily, Gearino soon dispenses with the more cliched devices of regionalism, and he overcomes the lingering aftertaste with comfortable, natural dialogue and deepening characterizations.

At the heart of this novel, as with Gearino's well received debut, "What the Deaf Mute Heard," is a deeply held secret from the past. The reader is escorted to the revelation by characters who all seem to be living down past disasters.

Charley, for instance, has just been booted out of high school only days before he would have graduated, losing his girlfriend in the bargain. His crime was knocking the school's star quarterback senseless with a late hit during spring football practice. Never mind that Charley was evening the score for a cheap shot against the team's lone black player. (Noble as that sounds, this is no "To Kill a Mockingbird." The fictional Barrington, Ga., is henceforth about as racially complex as TV's Mayberry, N.C.)

Charley and his distant mother, Frances, are still suffering deeply from the long-ago death of his little brother, Shay, a 5-year-old who drowned while the 9-year-old Charley was off playing baseball and the then-married Frances was off visiting people and places unknown.

The brooding Charley soon meets up with the attractive Tallasee Tynan, a hotshot photographer hiding out from her own big failure: a hasty marriage that turned south, then disappeared when her rock star husband died in a car crash.

Charley hires on as Tallasee's gofer, and in making their rounds they cross paths with another damaged specimen, a Vietnam vet named Lucas who provides "perimeter security" at a rustic commune of lazy hippies.

It is easy to get comfortable with Gearino's prose, but when the demands of the plot come up against the demands of character, plot wins almost every time. The result is an entertaining read with some disconcerting jolts and gaps. Frances, whose secret resides at the heart of the novel, nonetheless disappears completely for most of the book. A past flame of Tallasee's earns nary a mention nor, on her part, a single passing thought. Yet, when she suddenly summons him for the final chapters, he turns out to have been on her mind all along.

This sort of manipulation is further evident as Gearino ties up the plot's loose ends. While masterful at laying down false trails and hidden trap doors -- the final twist will doubtless make the audience gasp appreciatively when the inevitable film version hits the screen -- the parlor-trick nature of the climax cheapens all that comes before, making the characters seem willing participants in deception.

But at least it is pleasurable deception -- a few fictional days spent in the company of amiable and interesting people, spinning out their tales with the ease of an evening on Charley's front porch.

Dan Fesperman, a Sun reporter and author of the novel "Lie in the Dark," was born and raised in the South.

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