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Reviews of Tupelo

I've recently read Alec Clayton's new novel, Tupelo, and as much as I have enjoyed his other novels, I have to say this one may be his best. Perhaps it is the consistent through-line, the tight plot provided by his focus on the twins, Kevin and Evan, and their differing lives and behaviors: One grows gradually into the bigotry so prevalent around him, one becomes that dreaded southern phenomenon, a liberal. One eventually commits what amounts to murder, though he is never tried for it, or even blamed for it. (I won't tell you which in either case.)

The book is a long look at the mores of a Southern town, in this case, Tupelo, in northern Mississippi, where the racism was even worse. It was, and is, bad everywhere in Mississippi, but it was even more virulent in the north.

In saying so, I do not mean to imply this is an angry novel about racism. No. It isn't. Clayton, as always, handles his characters with a gentle though absolutely truthful touch. Kevin, or Evan, whichever one turned out decent, I'm not telling, gets his decency from their parents, Driver and Punkin, as they call each other and everybody calls them, for reasons lost in their history. Clayton, as ever, is wonderful at getting at the development and mores of all of his characters, not just the "good" ones. A sizable portion of his accomplishment is the fidelity and detail with which he records the past, makes it perfectly real and present. Driver and Punkin (the names alone are winners) are not moralists or activists. They are, simply decent people, with a decency which will not descend to racism, but is able at the same time, because of that very decency, to get along well with the generally more bigoted neighbors.

A book this good would not be lacking a good villain, and Clayton provides one in the person of Josh Culpepper, son of the local mean bastard and general no-good. Culpepper rises from a contorted childhood to become District Attorney, but his greatest evil has yet to occur. He loves to terrorize the twins—or rather to attempt to terrorize them. Kevin and Evan are small but fiery, and will buckle the knee to no one. Culpepper deserves a comeuppance, and he gets one, a well-deserved one, and one that proceeds from his own evil choices, finally.

Oh, and for fans of Travis "Red" Warner—you've seen him die, but an extra bonus of this warm and wonderful novel is that you get to see him live again, as a child in Tupelo, and you get to see the sorts of things about him you would love to know. - Jack Butler (Eureka, CA)
Mississippi has had more than its share of good-to-great writers, each focusing on a different section of this surprisingly diverse state. While Frederick Barthelme examines life on the modern Gulf Coast, Welty the Delta, and of course Faulkner rural Yoknapatawpha County, former Mississippian Alec Clayton sets his latest novel in Tupelo, the largest town in the northern part of the state, during the decades following World War ll. In this bildungsroman Clayton follows the births through deaths of a set of identical twin boys as they navigate not only the joys of childhood, the pains of love, and discovery of sex but also the changing racial landscape of the town. The novel is populated with dozens of colorful characters, ranging from the twins' parents and sisters to school friends, the 'help,' and assorted town denizens, and as in real life characters appear and disappear often without warning. The narrative intermingles a number of storylines also, sometimes focusing on racial inequities, sometimes on the twins' family life; readers must have patience to discover where the thread is heading, but in the end they will be rewarded.

As is the case with most Southern writing, the land itself becomes a major character. For those of us who lived for a spell in north Mississippi, the lakes, backroads, drugstores and courthouses will have a familiar ring. The streets here are actual Tupelo streets - Main, Gloster - and Clayton's detailed descriptions could almost be a roadmap for someone new to the town. The language also rings true - characters do not speak as Southern stereotypes but as you'd expect them to speak if you ran into them on the street decades ago.

If you're searching for a somewhat nostalgic read of regional literature or especially that narrowly defined genre of "Growing Up Southern,", Alec Clayton's TUPELO is well worth picking up. - Anthony J. Adam -
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