cover image The Devil's Dream

The Devil's Dream

Lee Smith. Putnam Adult, $21.95 (315pp) ISBN 978-0-399-13745-7

Smith's ( Fair and Tender Ladies ) novels always glow with the empathy she feels for her spirited Southern characters. Her latest, a rollicking hillbilly saga, traces the family of country music star Katie Cocker. In 1830s Grassy Branch, Tenn., the first Kate, member of a family known for their virtuosity on the fiddle, marries religion-obsessed Moses Bailey. Fiddle music, described by the fire-and-brimstone set as ``the voice of the Devil laughing,'' becomes her undoing, but her musical ability passes on. Smith spins a down-home tale of weddings and adulteries, many offspring--legitimate and otherwise--and thunderous ``signs from God'' in every generation. Each chapter is the equivalent of a country song, combining the tragic, the hokey, the joyous and the ironically inevitable. Among the vivid characters are Nonnie Bailey, who leaves her husband and children to run off with a quack medicine charlatan; the Grassy Branch Girls, who record legendary folk songs with the Victor Talking Machine Company; and Blackjack Johnny Raines, a pill-popping rockabilly cat. The book's zesty humor abates slightly as it catches up with Katie's own sad story of how she lost love but found religion. Still, Smith's strong, believable characters, their gossipy, matter-of-fact voices and their affection for their rustic mountain home makes this a rich, inviting multigenerational tale. Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club alternates. (July)