Undisciplined floods of off-kilter prose choke this fitfully lyrical second novel of affliction and redemption in early 1960s Mississippi. Haynes, a Mississippi native and author of Oprah-selected Mother of Pearl, knows the country she describes, but where her first novel sailed, this one founders. In the spring of 1961, 16-year-old Hezekiah ("Hez") Sheehand plans to walk to nearby Chalktown, a hamlet where folks are rumored to communicate only by writing on chalkboards. On his back he totes his mentally retarded five-year-old brother, Yellababy. Behind him, Hez leaves his mother, Susan-Blair, a slattern who hits her children; his father, Fairy, who lives in a bus in the yard; and his older sister, Arena, who has run off with a man who pays her to "work on him with her hands." As Hez nears Chalktown, Haynes slips back in time to 1955 to chart the silent community's history. Eerie as it is, the place is strangely soothing, and Hez wishes he could stay—a wish that may be granted when Arena's promiscuity drives Fairy to commit a terrible crime. Throughout, Hez's next-door neighbor, Marion Calhoun, a preternaturally good-hearted "colored man," keeps an eye on the feckless Sheehands. The overwritten narrative features a plethora of figures of speech (sometimes mixed to comical effect), occasional anachronisms and awkwardness in establishing point of view. Convincing dialogue, however, hints of miraculous doings, and a happy (albeit not credible) ending for Hezekiah and Yellababy will appeal to readers not deterred by the narrative's surges and lapses. (May 2)
Forecast: Mother of Pearl sold more than half a million copies in hardcover, but this uneven follow-up—allotted a $100,000 marketing campaign and a 10-city Southern author tour—isn't in the same league (nor, likely, will it be blessed with Oprah's seal of approval). Expect a lesser success.
Release date: 05/01/2001