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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
The GroVont Trilogy
When was the last time you were so taken with a book that you found yourself making excuses to read instead of: a) working, b) sleeping, c) paying attention to your wife and child, d) all of the above? Take my word for it, there's a price to be paid for each of these indiscretions. But Tim Sandlin's GroVont trilogy (SKIPPED PARTS, SORROW FLOATS, SOCIAL BLUNDERS) is worth it.
Earlier this year SKIPPED PARTS was recommended to me by two readers of very different tastes. At first I hesitated — if this Sandlin guy was such a great writer, why had I never heard of him? The answer to that question was, of course, somewhat humbling. In the final pages of the trilogy, Sandlin's hero, Sam Callahan, muses, "When I was young I had this strange feeling everyone around me knew something I didn't know. Turns out I was right."
I know exactly how he feels.
Let me make amends for this particular social blunder: SKIPPED PARTS didn't just take me by surprise, it blindsided me, left me dazed and desperately groping for the next installment. But don't just take my word: The new Riverhead editions are shamelessly prefaced with four pages of similarly awestruck blurbs, including raves from such luminaries as Larry McMurtry, John Nichols, and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth (an endorsement that has earned Sandlin the dubious honorific, "the voice of grunge").
Beginning in 1963 and set roughly ten years apart in succession, these novels range from wide-eyed wonder to soul scorching catharsis to slapstick farce as they record a changing Americafromthe wonderfully skewed perspective of the extended Callahan clan. SKIPPED PARTS opens as thirteen-year-old Sam Callahan and his mother, Lydia, find themselves exiled from the family manor in Greensboro, North Carolina, to the Martian landscape of GroVont, Wyoming. This latest salvo in a titanic battle of wills has been fired by family patriarch and carbon paper baron Caspar Callahan, not only in response to his wayward daughter's latest indiscretion, but also to remove Sam from the corrupting influence of — would you believe it? — baseball. (Caspar not only burns Sam's prized baseball card collection in a ritual bonfire, but chooses GroVont precisely because it is "farther from a major baseball team than any other spot in the country.") Sam is admonished to restrict himself to the contemplation of his future role in the Callahan carbon paper empire, but his attentions soon stray to dark-haired, blue-eyed Maury Pierce. The short stories Sam is forever injecting into the narrative shift dramatically from pennant races to pubescent fantasies as he vies with Maury for the vaunted title of school know-it-all — and gradually the two outsiders find common ground in their mutual love of books.
While Lydia sulks in her taxidermically enhanced cabin, either nursing or recovering from her nightly pint of gin, — Sam and Maury begin to explore aspects of Steinbeck, Heller, and D.H. Lawrence not taught in AP English. Maury proposes to Sam that as friends, they should help each other lose their virginity — in order to avoid future embarrassments when they are old enough to have real girl and boyfriends. Sam is only too eager to comply, but when the physical logistics prove daunting, they apply to the resident expert for coaching. Lydia's hilarious Tex-Mex inspired instructions meet with resounding success, and a rigorous practice schedule is begun in order to perfect the technique. When Maury decides it is time to road-test their new found skills, she selects the moon-faced Chuckette Morris as a suitable steady for Sam, and for herself, chooses Dothan Talbot, scion of a family of relocated southern rednecks in which all the children have been named after cities in Alabama. Predictably, this is all too much for Sam — despite his promise not to "get squirrelly," he cannot bear the thought of sharing Maury with anyone else. At the ripe old age of thirteen he has found the defining love of his life, and, with his Romantic turn of mind, he half suspects that life is going to be all downhill from there.
His suspicions are confirmed when Maury announces to all concerned that she is pregnant. Worse, she has no intention of dropping Dothan and expects Sam to fulfill his social obligations to Chuckette! Confused, elated with the prospect of fatherhood and terrified at the idea that Maury's rancher father might appear at any moment with a gelding knife, Sam wonders, not for the first (nor the last) time, just where he fits in this unsolvable equation. SORROW FLOATS finds Maury Pierce married miserably to Dothan Talbot, mourning the death of her father and drowning her sorrows in Everclear. When Dothan uses her alcoholism as an excuse to take custody of their child and move in with the tramp next door, Maury knows her only hope is to get Sam's help. But Sam has moved back to North Carolina, and to get there she must team up with two symbiotically paired recovering alcoholics — one a "fat cripple" with a talent for imaginative prevarication and the other a weatherbeaten knight errant — on a Ken Kesey-inspired cross country road trip.
SOCIAL BLUNDERS once again focuses on Sam — now 33-years old and reeling from the break up of his second marriage. Carbon paper has given way to golf carts, and his scribbling has finally resulted in a string of popular Young Adult sports novels. But when he decides work through heartbreak by tracking down his real father — one of the five football players Lydia claims gang-raped her when she was 15 — he becomes mired in a Mrs. Robinsonesque dilemma that is likely to shock even the most unshockable reader. To give away more would be criminal — you'll simply have to read it for yourself.
At a critical point in SORROW FLOATS the crippled road warrior Shane likens his extravagant gloss on reality to an obscure third century cleric's defense of the miracle of faith: "Credo quia absurdum est — This is too absurd to be made up, therefore it must be true." Sandlin must have taken this as his personal credo, as his gift for suspending disbelief and transforming the most far-fetched situations into the realm of everyday occurrence is indeed nothing short of miraculous.