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"Daddy's gone off again to hunt gators. He says the police might come lookin' for him 'cause of some problem with his ole truck. He says I can hide or not." From its opening sentences, Ken Wells's Meely LaBauve clearly delineates its world. This is Cajun Louisiana in the early 1960s, where a "liquored up" hog farmer can awaken to "a big sow chewin' on his right leg," and a woman can be married to a corpse in order to avoid giving birth to a bastard.
Emile "Meely" LaBauve's father is not easily found, neither by the police nor by his 15-year-old son. Daddy's absence can be partially explained by longing for his wife, Meely's mother, who died in childbirth several years before; part of his wandering, however, is due to his love of the treacherous swamps around Catahoula Bayou. Whether hunting gators or hiding out, he never ceases to revel in his surroundings and to pass on "peculiar notions" that put him at odds with his time yet seem, in our time, quite ecologically sound.
When he is around, Daddy is quick to express his pride in Meely, his only son: "A boy with hound dog ways and brains is about as good as a boy gits." Meely's appreciation of his father is perhaps best reflected in his own love of the swamp: "It's peaceful out here with the moon shinin' through the trees and grasshoppers sawin' in the reeds and frogs barkin' in the ponds and the slap of our paddles on the water. Now and then a nighthawk will swoop low and go whooshin' by lookin' for supper. Tiny bats flit and chase mosquitoes." The novel's prose sings in such descriptive moments.
Aside from an appreciation of the swamp, and the skills to live off it, Daddy provides little more than a way with gumbo and sauce piquante. Fortunately, Meely is surrounded by friends. There's Joey Hebert, the rich boy whose parents don't approve of the LaBauves, and Chickie Naquin, "who talks a lot and a shirt never got made that would stay tucked in his pants." Though Meely is usually truant, his teacher, Miz Lirette, is always looking out for him—as is Cassie Jackson, a colored girl willing to show him a little bit of "heaven." In a novel full of biting, often hilarious social commentary, Cassie spurs some of Meely's most resonant observations regarding class and race. Describing her, for instance, he says: "Her feet are country feet, hard and dirty and used to walkin' over fields and gravel and such. I've got about the same feet."
While Meely is an energetic and fiercely entertaining narrator, some readers may begin to feel as if they're being dragged along by a precocious youngster who feels compelled to describe everything in picturesque ways (a Cajun glossary is attached). A little too often, adults disburden themselves to Meely, and he, in his naive wisdom, too quickly understands. Just about when the charm is about to wear off, however, the plot sneakily arrives, and earlier sections begin to dovetail.
Conflict arises out of an everyday occurrence, when Meely and Daddy hitchhike to town, hoping to "reclaim" their impounded truck and do some gator hunting. Soon, despite their success in both endeavors, things begin to wheel out of control. Meely's arch-enemy, Junior ("several shrimp short of a gumbo") Guidry, and Junior's uncle, who happens to be the sheriff of Catahoula County, prove that bullying spans generations. The law is after Meely and Daddy "like fleas on a hairy old dog," and their only avenue of escape is the swamp.
One of the finest car chases in recent memory—complete with a gigantic alligator flying through a police car's windshield—ends with the separation of the LaBauves. Meely, slowed by a broken leg, waits in jail, hoping to hear whether Daddy has escaped; instead, he's taken to the morgue and asked to identify a body. Just when things could not get bleaker, the trial begins. Here, the LaBauve way of life, rather than any mere crime, is being judged, and the truth may never be told. Meely must trust his friends to find a way to save him—from jail, reform school, or an orphanage—while watching his enemies attempt to do their worst. How will justice possibly be served?
Ken Wells's Meely LaBauve will undoubtedly be compared to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and rightly so. Both novels deftly handle serious questions of race, class, and friendship; they both use humor to establish goodwill and maintain momentum through action. For sheer energy and rich, bright language, Huck Finn has few relatives, and Meely LaBauve is a not-too-distant cousin. At some points, his story's focus may seem a little soft and sentimental, his voice a little tireless, yet it would truly take a maudit mon fils de garce or chu de cochon not to enjoy the ride.