Write a novel set south of the Potomac and east of El Paso and sooner or later somebody’s going to compare you to William Faulkner. Southern writers don’t have to like it, but they do have to put up with it. However, in the case of T.R. Pearson, the brilliantly ingenious author of such comic novels as A Short History of a Small Place and Off for the Sweet Hereafter, nobody can say he didn’t ask for it.
On the surface at least, Pearson’s mannered and evocative chronicles of life along the backroads of rural North Carolina and Virginia have often read like updates of Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. Also like the master’s, Pearson’s folksy-baroque style, despite near-unanimous critical praise, is an acquired taste. Readers who have failed to appreciate its beauties are hereby forgiven. The boy has, after all, been known to write a long sentence or two — vast, meandering, digressive things whose seeming complexity vanishes when they’re read aloud with the proper drawl. (Making one suspect that for many readers, Pearson’s early novels may be more accessible on audiotape than on the printed page.) As for his equally meandering, elliptical plots, the proper comparison isn’t to Faulkner at all, but to Tristram Shandy, the eccentric 18th-century masterpiece of which Cyril Connolly once said, ”(It) reminds one at times of the youthful occupation of seeing how slowly one can ride a bicycle without falling off.”
Backhanded compliments aside, the truth is that Pearson’s sixth novel finds him pedaling as fast as he can. A crime novel of sorts set in the boondocks of southwest Virginia, Cry Me a River reads less like Laurence Sterne than a dirt-road Raymond Chandler. The novel’s first-person narrator, an unnamed, sly, and somewhat furtive policeman quietly convinced of his superiority to almost everybody he knows, finds himself turned into a local tourist attraction by townspeople eager to have him tell over and over again the tale of his most famous case, a fatal love triangle ”suggesting like it did that we were after all, under the surface of things, a community of passionate people who sometimes slaughtered each other for love.”
Except that it wasn’t a triangle at all, but a far more complex geometrical figure. Unknown to everybody but the narrator, it was at the very least a rectangle — including a fellow officer whose homicide remained officially unsolved. And it wasn’t quite love, either, but something darker and more unsettling. Nevertheless, he tells people what they want to hear. With the perpetrator already dead, bringing his colleague’s murder into it would only undermine the comforting version of the story everybody in town — nurtured on romance novels, TV soap operas, and ”true crime” documentaries — prefers to believe. ”Once all you’ve got is corpses,” he tells us, ”there’s no overwhelming reason to be honest and precise…Sometimes the truth is fine enough, and so much as consoling, but every now and then it’s likely worlds worse than a lie.”
But there’s more than communal innocence here that wants protecting. Among other things, there’s the narrator himself. For how could he tell all he knows without also revealing exactly how he came to know it? His own nocturnal prowlings, his collection of naughty Polaroids surreptitiously taken from the victim’s bedroom, and his voyeur’s enchantment with her decidedly ”unladylike postures…the exceptional pose, the graceful languid sprawl which proved an enduring distraction.”
With all of the virtues and none of the flaws of Pearson’s previous work, Cry Me a River is a taut, evocative, quite funny, and intermittently frightening novel by an extraordinarily gifted writer clearly seeking a broader audience. A-