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Slow Poison

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In the hyperbolic Southern swamps of Sheila Bosworth’s Slow Poison, even the weather overdoes it. ”It was the kind of storm,” muses narrator Rory Cade at one point, ”that you would see only in an amateur theatrical production, or in Louisiana: the lightning too purple, the rainfall too torrential, the thunder too loud.” The same might be observed of the flamboyant cast of down-home dementos who populate the author’s second novel. Whether they are to be pitied or scorned, however, Bosworth can’t seem to make up her mind.

Generically speaking, Slow Poison belongs to the Scamps & Tramps school of Southern fiction, with brawling Tulane frat boys compared to the fallen heroes of Shiloh and Gettysburg. ”Violence in the name of honor,” Rory ruefully observes, as her dashing beau, Johnny Killelea, pitches into a French Quarter bar brawl, ”the Irishman’s and the Southerner’s constant passion.” Bosworth’s women characters are the kinds of New Orleans and Mississippi Delta belles who, she observes half-admiringly, ”show more style flying drunk through the windshield of a careening automobile than an ordinary woman can muster coming up the aisle on her wedding day.”

Readers who find the image a bit peculiar are apt to find the novel bewildering. The story of three sisters growing up in Catholic southern Louisiana during the turbulent ’50s and ’60s, Slow Poison reads at times like satire, at other times like a Harlequin romance turned sour — a ”celebration,” to borrow a phrase the author uses to describe a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song, ”of obsessive humping and the sacred violence of love.”

Nobody in Bosworth’s fictive world loves either wisely or well. Among the novel’s characters only the obligatory truth-telling black servants with names like Cato and Abilene have enough sense to come in out of the rain. Not that Bosworth is without gifts as a novelist. Like Ellen Gilchrist, who works much the same territory, Bosworth has a vivid style and an emotional intensity that often make up for her sins. Even with its stereotyped characters, absurd plot, and failures of tone, there are whole chapters at a time when Slow Poison almost works. Just not enough of them. B-