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There are plenty of reasons for Lewis Nordan's growing popularity -- namely his goofball Southern charm and irreverent, folksy storytelling panache. (He has a voracious fan club. Among its mottos: "I Need the Nordan.") These attributes apply in full to the author's latest novel, Lightning Song, even if you sometimes feel he's trying too hard to please.
The plot is a familiar one, if dolled up in showy eccentricities. A Mississippi family on a llama farm is swept up one summer when, out of nowhere, a good-time uncle arrives like a Southern Gatsby to institute daily "grog rations" and stir up extramarital romance and trouble. We view these goings on through the eyes of 12-year-old Leroy, who's another of Nordan's awkward yet canny young narrators. Part loser and part revved-up mama's boy, Leroy would rather twirl a baton than shoot a rifle, and he takes comfort in some freaky neighbors -- he calls them the "New People" -- who feign foreign accents and play dress up. Leroy is appealingly peculiar, even in his offbeat family, which includes a mother obsessed with Aldo Moro, a father, inexplicably named Swami Don, who has a shriveled arm, a flirtatious, layabout uncle and a cursing, gun-toting sister. When he finds his grandfather dead in the attic, Leroy performs his own spooky version of CPR. When he feels awkward in public, he digs in his belly button. He's a thinker -- and sometimes an eloquent one: "For one moment, shining, fleeting, Leroy believed in silken dreams, their sweetness more ruby-throated than prayer, their efficacy more pure than geology."
Nordan has a knack for telling big, mythic stories, but here that quality works against him; Leroy's small but magical vision ultimately gets lost amid the pyrotechnics. Throughout Lightning Song, Nordan strains to create the illusion of spanning time. There are myriad references to characters "looking back," years from now, on specific events, but it's not entirely clear where the characters are looking back from or why. Given a choice between eerie and cutesy, Nordan will almost always choose cutesy, and that's a shame, because it's deeply disappointing when, at the end of this book, we lose track of Leroy's story. Generic family love ultimately triumphs here, and in the end, the lightning of Nordan's prose comes to feel like a showy -- but empty -- display. -- Salon