The 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.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Able storytelling and an engaging cast of dysfunctional modern American pilgrims animate this winning tale of the road. When tipsy, 23-year-old Maurey Pierce Talbot accidentally drives through her Wyoming town with her baby on the roof of her car, she realizes just how far she has sunk since her father's death left her distraught and almost unhinged. (She writes him daily picture postcards, knowing full well he is gone but unable to come to terms with her loss.) After attempting suicide and being thrown out by her philandering husband, she meets Lloyd and Shane, two recovering alcoholics who have devised a scheme to smuggle Coors beer to the East Coast. Longing to be reunited with her eight-year-old daughter Shannon in North Carolina (Sandlin chronicled Shannon's birth in Skipped Parts ), Maurey decamps on an unlikely odyssey, pulling a horse trailer full of beer behind a broken-down old ambulance, sipping Yukon Jack from the bottle as her companions search for AA meetings. Maurey is not yet ready to deal with her alcoholism or her reluctance to be loved, but the hardships of the road and the bonds that unite this group of refugees (others join them along the way) will change that. Maurey's wry, cocksure voice evokes both her cowgirl roots and the novel's '70s setting. Despite the bickering, sarcasm, cynicism and personal tragedy that season the lives of his colorful, credible characters, Sandlin fashions a convincing tale of redemption. (Oct.)
"I didn't really care where we went so long as we didn't get there." That sentence, spoken by 23-year-old Maurey Pierce Talbot from GroVont, Wyoming, defines the spirit of the road novel. It's not about a journey from one place to another, it's about motion and the freedom motion brings. Listen to Maurey again: "I needed a gap, a rest between this and that where no one could pull me up, put me down, or tear off little pieces of my energy." It doesn't work out quite like that, of course, but that's the other thing about road novels: despite your best intentions, you always do get somewhere. Fans of Tim Sandlin's quirky, iconoclastic novels will remember Maurey from "Skipped Parts" , which told the tragicomic tale of how she had a baby at 13. It's a decade later now (the mid-1970s), and Maurey's troubles keep piling up: her father has died, and she's hitting the bottle hard. Then she misplaces her second child, and her husband throws her out. Maurey's adventures on the road, in the company of two reformed drunks with stories to tell and a gaggle of other oddball characters, mix comedy and pathos effectively, though Sandlin gives in occasionally to some too easy sentimentality. Still, you expect a little of that on a road trip; if you don't feel free to turn maudlin on a journey to nowhere you might as well just stay home.
Read an Excerpt
From the Prologue
My behavior slipped after Daddy died and went to San Francisco. I danced barefoot in bars, I flipped the bird at churches. Early one morning in April I drove Dothan's new pickup truck off the Snake River dike, and when the tow truck crew showed up they found me squatting on a snow patch in my nightgown crying over the body of a dead plover.
Not that I'd ever been the Betty Crocker showcase woman. All through my teens GroVont townfolk called me "that Maurey Pierce girl," then after I came home from the university it became "that Maurey Talbot woman." But by May I'd taken to midday drinking and the writing of a daily picture postcard to Dad. I mostly sent him photographs of the Tetons from various views at various times of year-sunset from the top of Signal Mountain in winter, Jenny Lake on a cobalt clear day. I searched the valley curio shops for pictures of fall because Dad always did enjoy golden aspens and red chokecherries. What Dad didn't like was cute kids in station wagons feeding Yellowstone bears. He looked at Yellowstone as a big zoo of tame animals and lost tourists.
The pictures weren't all mountains and ain't nature wonderful shots. On Easter I mailed him the postcard of Clover the Killer with a rope around his neck sitting on a bow-back gelding surrounded by tourists in car coats and sneakers. Clover is wearing a red plaid shirt and he has only one eye; the other side of his face is an empty cavern that goes way in there to pink, wrinkled skin-no glass eyeball or black patch or anything, just a hole.
On the back I wrote: "As the one-eyed whore said to the traveling salesman after he nailed her in the socket, 'Hurry on back now, mister. I'll keep an eye out for you.'"
- - - -
The tide of public opinion swung to my male slut husband, Dothan, after I cut my hair short and took to carrying Dad's gopher popper in my windbreaker pocket. Nine-tenths of the men in Teton County drive around armed to the armpits, but let a woman pack a little Dan Wesson model 12 .357 Magnum with a four-inch, satin blue barrel, and the feed store cronies commence rolling their eyes and gabbing on about the Pierce family tendency to fall off the deep end.
Everybody says you've got to have balls to get respect in this world, but I couldn't help noticing that with that satin blue barrel poking out, the service improved considerably at Kimball's Food Market. The guy at the Esso station moved right along when I said check the oil. Even Dothan cut down on criticizing my dusty kitchen surfaces.
Dad won Charley-that's what I call him-with two pair jacks high at a stock show in Billings. I didn't load Charley with bullets. What I did was pretend he's a penis without a man, which is the only kind I like. Probably some strange psychological word for carrying a disembodied prick in your pocket, but I don't care. Where other people knock on wood, I rub my rod.
Why did I fight the demon? Which leads to why did I drink? Why did the world in all its parts press down on me from every direction until I reached the point of personifying whiskey? "Whisky My Only Friend," "Let Me Go Home, Whisky," "Whisky River Take My Mind," "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," "Tiny Bubbles," "Wine Me Up," "Mean Old Whiskey," "One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall, One Hundred Bottles of Beer."
On my fourteenth birthday, before my first ever period, I had a baby named Shannon. Shannon is now eight and a half and beautiful, living in North Carolina with her natural father because I couldn't take care of her. Let's stress that-because I couldn't take care of her.
My son, Auburn, the light of my dark, frigid nights, started existence by defying the poison of Delfen foam, came out breech, had jaundice at three days and an undeveloped esophagus that wouldn't close for nearly six months. Dothan blamed me, of course, and Auburn has howled at the colossal cheat that is life ever since.
Dad's dead; you know about him.
Mom is a story unto herself. Don't get me started on Mom. She cleans and perfects meat loaf recipes and hums show tunes. Every third year or so she takes her clothes off in public- usually rodeos-and goes to pharmaceutical heaven for a few days, where they give her sponge baths and take the laces out of her shoes. My little brother, Petey, takes care of Mom after these periods, and the very thought of him sponge-bathing her white, droopy body gives me the willies.
Dothan sells real estate. He has the dates and times of all the Kiwanis meetings penciled on his calendar, not because he's a Kiwanian, but because he knows those are safe days to visit the members' wives. That pretty much says it all about my marriage.
I'm making a point here. My downfall can't be blamed on histrionics. In May of 1973, the day it all got up and went, I had as much cause to drink lunch and write picture postcards to a dead father in San Francisco as anyone.