HAVE YOU HEARD
Jerry Chiffon, protagonist of this funny, poignant tragicomedy, is something of a gay prodigy. Born to poor tobacco farmers, Jerry is blessed from the cradle with a penchant for child care and housewifery and a preternatural decorating sense. After his mother dies giving birth to his huge-headed younger brother, Jerry mothers him and cares for his father "as good as an unmarried sister would have." The ladies of Branch Creek, N.C., take this kindred spirit under their wing and, thumbing their noses at gender stereotypes, further feminize him with lessons in etiquette and hostessing. The grown-up Jerry sojourns in Greenwich Village of the late '70s and early '80s, getting his fill of out gay life and ministering to the beginning AIDS epidemic. Finally, he returns to serve as Branch Creek's paragon of taste and, decked out in a woman's pants suit and fake Chanel purse, mount an assassination attempt against a homophobic senator. Ferrell (Where She Was ; Home for the Day ) chronicles Jerry's rise from redneckery to refinement as a study in contrasts, offering up excruciating childbirths, bloody auto accidents and baroque gay debaucheries alongside rapt meditations on the niceties of form and propriety. His lucid prose vividly delineates a rich array of characters and voices (Jerry's story is told by three different narrators, each with a unique take on it), from politely catty Southern matrons and dissolute trust-fund roués to racist good-ol'-boys. The result is something of a Queer Eye for the Old South, but one that finds a surprising moral gravity in the subtleties of floral arrangements and table settings. (Apr.)
Forecast: Though Ferrell's first novel received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and his second was nominated for a Pulitzer, his Southern tales failed to reach a wide audience. Perhaps, with Have You Heard's warmth, comedy and au courant flair, the third time will be a charm.