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Speaking of Polar Opposites...
T.R. Pearson's Polar

by Doug Childers

In his latest novel, T.R. Pearson inverts our notions of what is primary and secondary material in a novel, and the effect is surprisingly entertaining.

Gustav Stickley, one of the leaders of the American Arts and Crafts movement, advised design-minded homeowners to divide their rooms into two distinct areas. The walls were the background, he said, and the furniture, rugs and pictures were the foreground. The key to strong interior design was finding the perfect balance between the two. Too little emphasis on the foreground could allow the wall colors to dominate; too meager a wall color would allow the foreground objects to lord it over the room. Allowing the foreground to be slightly stronger than the background, he argued, would be perfect.

The same notion could be applied to writing novels: subplots, settings and secondary characters are the background, and the main plot and the central characters are the foreground. Ordinarily, we would expect the foreground--the main characters and the central plot--to be favored over the background in a successful novel. Indeed, it would defy the notions of 'primary' and 'secondary' to invert their roles in a novel. And yet that's precisely what T.R. Pearson has done in his latest novel, Polar--and the effects, counterintuitively, are shockingly entertaining.


T.R. Pearson
244 pp.

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Pearson is best known for his trilogy of novels set in Neely, North Carolina (A Short History of a Small Place, Off For the Sweet Hereafter and The Last of How It Was). He has been justifiably compared to Faulkner for his penchant for richly detailed, mythical Southern settings and characters who appear again and again across a series of novels as well as for his considerable talents with pitch-perfect narrators. His last novel, Blue Ridge, stepped away from the oral-tradition-driven narrator, but Polar shows him back in his established mode, and when it comes to sheer entertainment, the narrative voice here is as good as anything he's done before.

The main plot--or what would pass for one if Pearson hadn't inverted the novel's background and foreground--deals with a little girl who has wandered off into the woods around her Virginia Blue Ridge farm and never come back. Deputy Ray Tatum (who appeared in Pearson's Blue Ridge as well) is the small town's best cop, but while he's diligent and even obsessed about the girl's disappearance, he can make no progress on the case. Then a local eccentric (one among many; the town's full of them) suddenly stops talking compulsively about his favorite porn movie plots and starts spouting prophetic but cryptic phrases that may be clues to her disappearance. (The locals are divided over how, exactly, the sudden change to prophecy took place. "There's a school of thought," Pearson writes, "that Clayton fell prey to the [grocery store's] bar-code scanner, that the laser somehow bored clean through his pupils to his brain and fused together a couple of pertinent vessels.")

A Gothic-tinged mystery plot that offers a dollop of David Lynch-style oddities is certainly an engaging concept. It's the comical set of secondary characters and the writing voice that dominate much of Polar, though, both in terms of sheer word count and the overall tone of the book. Pearson's narrator (an unnamed local with a hilarious regional voice) gets many of the book's biggest laughs poking fun at the locals, as he does here in this passage about one of the town's farmers:


He took poor care of his cattle and worse care of what paltry income he had. His TV and couch were both rented at an 18 percent return. That Akers had purchased through the mail shares in a gold mine in Bermuda and had bought from a fellow traveling door to door a hot tub that collapsed his porch. He routinely upgraded his John Deere even with no land much to work, traded in his truck every eighteen months and took a thrashing for it, and it was that Akers who'd gone to the super flea at the fairgrounds in Culpeper and come home with Stonewall Jackson's wristwatch and a sliver of Moon rock.

So that Akers was widely known about to be a bit of a fool which he compounded by way of galloping paranoia. Along with his bilious pitch of contempt for the Department of Agriculture, he reserved a little venom for the World Bank and the Trilateral Commission which, to hear it from Akers, kept a dossier on him and fed information to the Japanese.

That Akers's cattle could never just be sick, were always poisoned and contaminated, and once Doyle the veterinarian had discovered the offending parasite, had identified the fungus or put a name to the bacteria, he'd evermore get invited to throw in with speculation as to how exactly the Department of Agriculture had tainted that Akers's forage or managed to infect his water table....

Now there was a time when Doyle would dispute with that Akers over the source of his livestock's complaints, would explain how his cows might have picked up a bug from that Akers's moldy hay or the swampy ditch behind his house that Akers employed for a leach field. It had come at length, however, to be Doyle's practice to shout out "Sons of bitches!" whenever he dosed, injected or otherwise mended one of that Akers's cows.


As funny as the narrator's rants about the local eccentrics are, though, Pearson's deadliest targets are located not in the Virginia hills but in the inanities that reach the town through TV, movies and talk radio. We live, Pearson's narrator tells us, in the "golden age of crap"--or as he puts it more politely, "it was plain that there was a national appetite about for tragedy, most particularly some sort of mishap that was telling of detail and artistic in its TV presentation." Perhaps inevitably, the mother of the missing girl finds her daughter's disappearance resonates beautifully for a hungry, media-fed public. Soon, she leverages her personal tragedy into a busy career as a populist pundit. "Like most everybody else on talk radio and palaver TV at the time, that Dunn woman wasn't called upon to marshal any facts or supply specific answers to pointed and considered queries but was expected to unfreight herself, when she got called on for that purpose, of a lively uninformed and nonresponsive diatribe which suited her well because she always knew just what she thought but not necessarily why she'd come to think it." Not surprisingly, the missing girl's mother is from the city (Dayton, Ohio), and while the locals may take in their fair share of media garbage, it's the cultural snob, transplanted into the mountains, who comes to represent contemporary society at its worst.

Polar's juxtaposition of broad, often hilarious comedy and grimly, even eerily drawn tragedy is jarring, to say the least, and it may take more than a few pages for some readers to settle into the pattern comfortably. Readers looking for a straightforward mystery novel whose central plot line readily asserts its dominance over the text should look elsewhere for their thrills--or consider loosening their normal drive for plot and let themselves float down Pearson's meandering text. (And consider the verbal authenticity: don't spoken narratives tend to have that wandering, mixed-tone quality, especially if the speaker is loquacious?)

In the final pages, Polar takes an unexpectedly sad, poetic turn that works beautifully, not only because Pearson has a talent for mournful lyricism but also because his sympathy for his characters is so clearly genuine. It's hard to think of another writer who comes close to the strangely melancholy, bittersweet qualities Pearson achieves in his best work, and in these final pages, the subtle turn of emotions is strikingly original and effective.


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