Dorothy Allison wrote the book on dysfunctional families. It was called
Bastard Out of Carolina." Sort of The Beans of Egypt, Maine meets Tobacco Road. Allison's take on so-called trailer trash has always been to highlight the real people beneath the stereotypes and the new family configurations with the power to heal when the traditional ones have proved poisonous. Sure enough, her men tend to be good-for-nothing boozers and womanizers (and sometimes batterers) and her women feisty survivors, but they're always fully realized characters, cursed with their very own frailties.
In Allison's new novel,
Cavedweller, former singer Delia Byrd forsakes the scene of one screwup -- Los Angeles and its rock-music glitter -- to return to the scene of the original, her Bible Belt hometown of Cayro, Ga. When her rock-star lover is killed in a motorcycle accident, she flees homeward with their love child, 12-year-old Cissy. Determined to put alcoholism behind her and to be reunited with the two daughters she abandoned long ago, she faces a community reluctant to forgive and not just one angry daughter but three.
In a deal to regain custody of Amanda and Dede, Delia agrees to care for her ex-husband, Clint, who's dying of cancer. Once a wife-beater, he's now too weak to lift an arm. Thus is created the most interesting fictional ménage since Michael Cunningham's
A Home at the End of the World. Delia, who's sworn off men for the time being, works as a hairdresser and worries that her brood will repeat her foolish mistakes. Cissy and Dede become fast friends. Dede is the teen rebel (a little wild but essentially harmless) and Cissy the wonderstruck observer. Amanda, the oldest, seeks solace in Christian fundamentalism, and right out of high school marries a preacher and is churning out babies for the army of the Lord.
The cavedweller of the book's title is Cissy, who, as she grows into her teens, finds both adventure and comfort in spelunking. The risks of injury and getting lost guarantee adventure; the quiet and womblike engulfment offer comfort. An altogether fitting metaphor for family. The very possibility of love, this book suggests, can scare us to death.
Because Cissy isn't the book's main character -- the whole family takes on this role -- I kept misreading the title as
Cavedwellers, a symptom that this novel simply isn't as taut and as sharply focused as its predecessor. Allison assigns all these characters, and minor ones as well, a bit too much to do. (I haven't mentioned the shootings, the genuinely good man, the interracial friendships or the lesbian couple, have I?) But given the tale's extraordinary vitality and wisdom, that's a small price to pay. -- Salon, March 9, 1998
Four women endure pain, experience epiphanies and find imperfect but bearable methods to continue their lives in Allison's moving second novel, after the celebrated
Bastard Out of Carolina. After Delia Byrd buries Randall Pritchard -- father of her 10-year old daughter, Cissy, and guitarist of the rock band Mud Dogs, for which she was the soulful singer -- she leaves L.A. and hits the road to backwoods Cayro, Ga., the town she left a decade ago, fleeing her violent husband, Clint Windsor, and abandoning her two baby daughters. In Cayro, she suffers the scorn of most of the community, who condemn her as a sinner and an unnatural mother. Eventually, she strikes a bargain with Clint, offering to tend him on his deathbed if he will allow her to reclaim her daughters Amanda, 15, and Dede, 12, from their stern, Bible-quoting grandmother. The narrative covers the next few years, during which Delia fights poverty, exhaustion, her household's emotional turbulence and the urge to drink. Sanctimonious Amanda pursues moral rectitude with evangelical fervor; sexpot Dede dreams of driving a big truck down the highway; and outwardly tough but vulnerable Cissy discovers peace of mind in spelunking and begins to suspect her sexual orientation. Allison widens her tale to include other members of the community, rendering some hard-faced, cold-blooded rednecks with unsparing honesty. She weaves into the story such themes as female bonding, the power of hate and the puzzle of love, the hard path to forgiveness and acceptance. There are some problems: the teenage girls often speak unconvincingly sophisticated dialogue, and the narrative tends to ramble. Nevertheless, the novel has a restless energy and consistently interesting characters that will keep readers caring about the flawed but valiant women who manage to surmount their private griefs through stubborn determination.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1981, Delia Byrd leaves behind the California life of fame and misery she found at the top of the record charts and the bottom of a bottle to return home to Cayro, GA. Cissy, her young daughter, who is grieving for her newly dead father, crazed rocker Randall Pritchard, wants no part of this new life. Now Delia is trying to put together a life and reacquaint herself with the two older daughters (one a hellion, the other a religious zealot) she abandoned ten years earlier when she fled her murderous husband, who stonewalled all of Delia's attempts to obtain legal custody. Shunned by family and community, Delia struggles mightily with sobriety and three unforgiving, hostile offspring. Her remarkable stoicism as she attempts to carve out a new low-key, rock-solid security for herself and her children is nothing short of heroic. Allison's (
Bastard Out of Carolina, LJ 3/1/92) powerful elegance puts the lives of these four women right into the face of her readers as she charts their touching, flawed efforts to construct a workable if unconventional family unit. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/97.]Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Cavedweller sounds inventive and rhythmic; though there are still scenes in which the language is workaday, there are also passages of luminous power and several strong metaphors -- journeys and car wrecks and caves --that give the novel a broad shapeliness....Allison is especially good at depicting real women facing real poverty....This is not a novel interested in formal invention, in ironic distance or even in elegant prose. It doesn't give two cents for post-modern preening or cold intellectual approaches. It reaches back to the conventions of straightforward storytelling and pays close attention to the way women get by, the way they come to forgive one another, the way they choose who they will be. -- New York Times
An increasingly absorbing story of "a family in pieces, pulling itself back together out of one woman's stubborn determination," by the author of the bestselling
Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), a National Book Awardfinalist. In plain impassioned prose enlivened by superbly salty dialogue, Allison gradually discloses the inner lives and secret histories of four bewildered, determined women who eventually come to understand themselves by grappling with the complicated permutations of their mingled fear, hatred, and love of and for their families, husbands, lovers, and one another. Their story begins when Delia Byrd, a rock-and-roll singer whose partner has died in a motorcycle accident, takes their preadolescent daughter Cissy with her across the country on an impulsive mission to reclaim the two other daughters Delia had abandoned a decade earlier when she fled their abusive father, who had all but killed her. The pair's destination is Cavro, Georgia, a closemouthed backwater where Delia, remembered as "that bitch [who] ran off and left her babies," must painstakingly reconnect with her sinhelping her cancer-stricken husband to die, and submissively biding her time as her girls grow into variously troubled and empowered women. Cissy's older half-sister Amanda is a religious zealot finally softened by her acquaintance with the consolations of "sin." The younger, Dede, works through her "wildness" and anger to the possibility of a loving relationship. And Cissy finds in her obsessive explorations of a nearby cave a passageway "into her dream self" and the strength to seize her future. All comes together with Delia's stunning revelation of the "stolen world" of herchildhooda world that she and hers, through sheer force of will, essentially recover. Allison's breakaway intensity and warm identification with her characters carry this long book triumphantly over its repetitions and overemphases, producing an altogether wonderful second novel and, for its author, a giant step forward.