Book Review

Appalachian blues make novel sing

CorrespondentJanuary 7, 2007 

Bristol's State Street might more accurately be called States Street as Virginia and Tennessee meet at the center line to share the one city between them -- one side Volunteer, one side Old Dominion. This divided municipality is an apt setting for Robert Love Taylor's fifth book of fiction, "Blind Singer Joe's Blues," which is a narrative of conflicted loyalties and split personalities.

From the title of the book, you would assume that the story will focus on Singer Joe Crider, the angry, blind guitar player we meet in the opening chapter. But Singer Joe's real blues come from his parents and the novel is mostly their story, which begins in Bristol when Hannah Ruth Bayless meets the handsome Dudley Crider. Hannah Ruth is the second child and oldest daughter of Lewis and Rachel Bayless. Lewis and Rachel have seven children before Lewis decides the settled-down domestic life just isn't for him. He's the first in a line of men in the novel who abandon or never really acknowledge their children, and the search for or the identification of the father becomes the novel's central concern.

During a short interlude as newlyweds in Knoxville, Hannah Ruth discovers that Dudley has some quirks to his personality that come, perhaps, from the fact that he caught his own father in a delicate situation with a schoolteacher and that the father later left the family. Dudley installs Hannah Ruth in a rented room and spends his evenings breaking into houses to watch women sleep and to steal trinkets that he keeps in a steamer trunk. In keeping with the novel's theme, Dudley takes to roaming farther afield, leaving Hannah Ruth to return to Bristol where she and her mother struggle to raise the blind boy.

To help make ends meet, Hannah Ruth takes a job cleaning for a wealthy banker's family, the Holts. There she meets and is befriended by Amelia Holt, the family's musically talented daughter. Hannah Ruth has always thought that she had a tolerable singing voice, but Amelia recognizes what Hannah Ruth has is a true vocal instrument. Amelia sets about to train that instrument and, in the process, falls in love with Hannah Ruth. Hannah Ruth does not find Amelia's attentions to be unwelcome and this situation is further complicated by a spur-of-the-moment tryst Hannah Ruth has with Amelia's emotionally damaged brother Emmett.

Emmett, who has a complex relationship with his own successful but distant father and, probably because of this relationship, also has a fondness for wearing women's clothes, impregnates Hannah Ruth, and Amelia eventually takes the product of this union to raise as her own. To further muddy the waters, Dudley passes back through town during this period and visits Hannah Ruth. This leads him later to believe that he, not Emmett Holt, is the father of the child, and that leads to the novel's tragic and dramatic high point.

Music is a powerful, driving element in this novel, and one of Taylor's strengths is his ability to convey the sensations that both instrumental and vocal music can produce. Hannah Ruth's strong singing becomes a kind of mystical thread that joins Dudley, Amelia, Emmett, a fiddler named Pink Miracle and finally Singer Joe and his half brother Alex. What Taylor is weaker at is clarifying the psychological states produced by the numerous and often unexpected alliances. The real impact of the various dalliances is only hinted at and remains mostly off-stage.

One of the pleasures of this book is Taylor's management of dialect. Most of the story takes place in the mountains of Virginia and Tennessee, and Taylor has a good ear for catching Appalachian phrasing. He has a light touch, so that characters sound perfectly authentic without failing into "Hee Haw" parody. And when the action shifts for a time to the Mississippi delta, Taylor shows himself to be adept at a different kind of Southern speech.

Taylor draws an unconventional picture of turn-of-the-century Appalachia, showing that secret obsessions and boundary-crossing sexuality has not ever been limited only to the cosmopolitan cities. Like the ballads and blues that are features of many of the scenes in this book, there's a lot of trouble here, and heartaches by the score, but there's also sweet music and the solace of voices joined in song.

(Michael Chitwood is a poet who lives in Chapel Hill.)

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