Fall Line by Joe Samuel Starnes

Monday, February 20, 2012

Fall Line

by Joe Samuel Starnes
NewSouth Books

Most of the two dozen or so lakes in Georgia were forced into being at the behest of power, both electrical and human. As post–World War II urbanites built vacation communities on the man-made shores and spent their weekends free of the city, they water-skied and fished above the barnacled remnants of drowned towns. Somewhere below the sparkling blue waves lay junkyards of rusted cars, brick foundations of groceries and churches, and spires of ancient oaks denied the sky, now ”nothing but deadwood where catfish would gather."

With Fall Line, Joe Samuel Starnes has written a novel that accrues force the way a swollen river becomes a torrent. Fall Line lays bare the twenty-four hours before the demolition of the fictional town of Finley Shoals, a flyspeck middle-Georgia community in the crosshairs of progress. While last-minute backroom land grabs cheat high-rollers out of the best waterfront real estate and the community assembles for a fireworks show to kick off the damming of the Oogasula River, a doomed town breathes its last. The water release approaches, and the silent anger of ex-deputy Elmer Blizzard surfaces.

Told over the course of December 1, 1955, Fall Line depicts the demise of Finley Shoals through the eyes of several townspeople, a politician, and a dog, each of whom—dog included—has his or her own allegiances to the town and the acres of forest that surround it. Only Blizzard, son of a dirt farmer, disputes the inevitability of the destruction of his town, reminding his star-struck uncle that the senator behind the land deal made “good money in selling what used to be my mama’s land."

Starnes manages a neat feat by beginning the book from the point of view of Percy, a “half-chow and half-mutt” country dog. This opening isn’t a sentimental ploy, as Starnes uses Percy’s distorted perception of seismic and emotional upheaval to immerse us in the gut-level disorientation that Fall Line is ultimately about. The dog’s limited view makes way for Elmer Blizzard’s, as imperfect in its own way as the other characters’: Blizzard’s glad-handing uncle Lloyd, Senator Aubrey Terrell, and the teenaged Raynelle Watson, who will meet the town’s new day with blood on her hands.

Blizzard, he of the angry past, and of little interest in how the present is turning out, does a good deed in coercing his neighbor Mrs. McNulty to leave her shack at the edge of the river. The old woman owns the gun-shy dog Percy and her deceased husband’s acres of useless “leaf covered old cars dating back to the beginning of automobiles." Blizzard knows he can’t hold back the surge of water that will drown his community, but from one dawn to the next, he carries out a dour plan to make his opinion known to Senator Aubrey Terrell, known as “guvnah” to the more sycophantic in Finley Shoals. It’s Terrell for whom the imminent lake will be named, and it’s Terrell, power and destruction in one, who is squarely in Blizzard’s sullen sights.

Starnes, a Georgia native now living outside the South, slips into the skin of a small southern town. This, his second novel, rings with the piercing accuracy of other modern authors of the rural South, particularly Ron Rash and Tom Franklin. His first novel, Calling, earned him a comparison to the late and legendary Mississippi novelist Larry Brown.

A fertile southern story is made of the full character of southern diction and human beings whose lives are a mix of suspicion, naiveté, and eagerness. Most of Finley Shoals’ residents and outliers—black and white—are at the very least resigned to the dam. During the course of Fall Line’s day, most of the town’s upper crust eagerly make their way to the opening ceremony and fireworks show. Starnes writes against a small horizon; in Fall Line we cover no more landscape than the small stretch from the wooded Oogasula riverbank to the town, up to the inside of the giant, dormant dam, and ultimately back into the woods. Blizzard gets a tour of the monolith with his uncle and a helmeted guide from the power company. Starnes conveys the deputy’s awe and anxiety in a sentence that carries the full threat of the future to Finley Shoals: “Never had he seen so much concrete in one place, and he had been to Atlanta."

Unlike O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” southerners, the people of doomed Finley Shoals will be haunted by a land that they’ve been convinced to relinquish for the forward march of progress, and like Elmer Blizzard and Raynelle, Starnes’s readers, especially those who dip into Fall Line on a lakeside weekend, will know how deeply loss can run.

The town’s fate is sealed on the book’s first page, and in a tightly controlled, elegant narrative, Starnes’s exacting novel brings us inside one rural community when the American South was about to burst and not one thing could hold back water or time.