Bret Lott's 'A Song': finding a country of grace

May 30, 2004|By Michael Harris

A Song I Knew by Heart, by Bret Lott. Random House. 310 pages. $24.95.

Naomi Reilly grew up in South Carolina, and memories of warm winters and sunlight on pine straw remain with her after half a century in Massachusetts. Her husband, Eli, dies, and she moves in with her son, Mahlon, and daughter-in-law, Ruth. Eight years later, Mahlon is killed in a crash on an icy road. Desolate, Naomi returns to the South. Ruth, young enough to start over but lacking any other family, accompanies her, saying: "Where you go, I will go. Where you live, that's where I'll live too. This is a pact between us."

Bret Lott's use of the biblical names in his sixth novel, A Song I Knew by Heart, is clue enough: He's retelling the Book of Ruth, one of the Old Testament's gentler interludes. Some alterations were necessary. The point of the Bible story is that a woman not born to the children of Israel could become one of them by commitment and faith, and even give rise to the line of King David. No royal issue is involved here, of course, and the religious and cultural differences between two states of the union -- whose residents watch the same TV shows and shop at the same chain stores -- can't compare with those between ancient Moab and Judah.

To compensate, Lott, whose previous works include Jewel and The Hunt Club, introduces a twist: He makes Naomi, who narrates the novel, a sinner. In the early years of her marriage, despairing of having a child by Eli, she had a brief affair with Lonny, the ex-Navy buddy who brought Eli to New England to open a garage together. She regretted the lapse immediately and never repeated it, but guilt has weighed on her ever since. Saying goodbye to her quilting circle, she is shaken when her best friend, Mary Margaret -- her only confidante about the affair -- blurts out: "What about Lonny Thompson?"

Lonny is dying of cancer, his wasted appearance mocking the passion he once aroused. There's another reason Naomi doesn't want to see him: Mahlon died driving to care for Lonny, whom he viewed as an uncle.

Yet Naomi does talk to Lonny, and he has a revelation for her -- news that forces her to alter all her ideas about her married life with Eli. It isn't bad news, but it's still shocking, and Naomi finds herself adrift in a new mental landscape even as the physical one around her changes.

Her childhood home indeed has disappeared. All that's left is a vacant lot with three concrete steps, a mockingbird perched on them. Naomi identifies the bird with God, who has followed her here, foiling her attempt to flee her sin and all who knew of it.

But the large and lively Stackhouse clan, step-relatives of Eli's, has begun to twine itself around the two women like benign kudzu. Children offer Naomi a new interest in life, once she can thaw out from the deep freeze of grief.

It's hard to think of another recent novel in which ordinary people behave so well toward one another. The tale's Old Testament origins betray themselves here. Despite the realistic surface -- and we can only admire the way Lott creates and differentiates so many characters and sets them into action so naturally -- this is a story of simple and primal emotions.

People fall in love at first sight, for life. No ambiguity corrodes the purity of mourning, the warmth of welcome. In one extended scene after another, this most sensitive of writers walks a fine line between the sublime and the soporific. Some readers will think he crosses it. Others will be glad for a chance to visit a country of grace where the twisted roads of American literature seldom lead us.

Michael Harris, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, regularly reviews books for the Los Angeles Times. This review, in longer form, was published in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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