Marlette's 'The Bridge' -- Southern matriarchy

October 28, 2001|By Jeff Danziger | By Jeff Danziger,Special to the Sun

The Bridge, by Doug Marlette. HarperCollins 388 pages. $26.

This is a very Southern book, so first a disclaimer. I met my first Southerners in the army, and I met the South itself as the surroundings of army bases. Since I hated the army, the entire culture was lumped together as one mass of prejudice, violence, suspicion and heat. I believed that the Northeast, my home, was clearly superior in every way.

In 25 years since my military time, my opinion has remained intact. Part of this book's intrigue is why the author left the South and then goes back. That part, to me, is a mystery.

FOR THE RECORD - A review of Doug Marlette's novel The Bridge in the Oct. 28 edition of The Sun incorrectly characterized the circumstances under which Marlette left his job at the Long Island newspaper Newsday. Marlette left the newspaper through mutual agreement to pursue other projects. The Sun regrets the error.

Marlette is a longtime political cartoonist, and this is his first novel. He begins with a complaint about the weaknesses of corporate journalism and its fear of strong opinion. His main character, also a cartoonist, beats the hell out of his publisher, an insufferable Long Island doofus, and is fired.

It is pretty clear that the author, who in real life was indeed recently fired from his job at Long Island Newsday, is the hero of the book, and has, as they say on the island, some issues. He returns, with his tolerant wife, to his native North Carolina, and to, he thinks, a simpler life. Things, and the novel, get more complicated than is good for them. A series of family secrets about his grandmother and the horrors of a long-forgotten textile strike are revealed. The old ghosts are unquiet, and as you've heard from other Southern writers, you can't go home again.

My Southern friends in the army had a tendency to talk at length about their families, as I recall, more than I would find it necessary to reciprocate. The need to analyze one's generations increases at the Mason-Dixon line, north of which we tend to be not quite so interested. But as literature, family history is difficult to carry off, and when the impact of the narrative is in the past, it's even harder.

Here, Marlette tries to have himself face North Carolina's cruel anti-union history, which is both shocking and intriguing, and perhaps would have been a good book by itself. He then adds current travails, a love interest, the failures of corporate journalism and the re-discovery of old home values, and it struck me as just too much work, even for a more experienced writer. Even Robert Penn Warren's classic All the King's Men had its boggy stretches when it tried to do the same thing.

The key character, as in most Southern literature, is the matriarch of the family, the hero's grandmother, Mama Lucy, who is demanding and / or annoying, depending on your relationship, Her mercurial influence nearly wrecks his family even as she serves him her special Sweet Tea, a cloying local confection.

She is the way she is because of the past, the Southern past, also demanding and annoying. I imagine that by forgiving Mama Lucy her faults Marlette comes to terms with his roots. But any such actual person would have sent me crawling back for some Long Island Iced Tea, back to Melville, and I don't mean Herman.

Jeff Danziger is an independent political cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune Media Service, and is the author of Rising Like the Tucson, a novel about the Vietnam War.

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