A Space Apart
When Meredith Sue Willis's first novel, which tells the story of a troubled preacher's family in West Virginia, first came out in 1979, it was declared a cause for celebration by the Los Angeles Times. Comparing Willis to Anne Tyler, the Times wrote: "She has written with depth and honesty about a life style available to many of us only though books." More
When Meredith Sue Willis's first novel, which tells the story of a troubled preacher's family in West Virginia, first came out in 1979, it was declared a cause for celebration by the Los Angeles Times. Comparing Willis to Anne Tyler, the Times wrote: "She has written with depth and honesty about a life style available to many of us only though books." A Space Apart, according to The Philadelphia Bulletin, "weaves a web of subtle suspense and poetic perception." Now the electronic re-issue of the novel, making it easily and economically available, is again a cause for celebration, and those keeping running tally on the pros and cons of technology's impact on literature, have got to put this new incarnation solidly in the "pro" column. Certainly this is true for me, having missed the novel the first time around. I have, however, long known Willis's short story collection, In the Mountains, which shares a similar West Virginia setting, and has the same ability to render ordinary speech so lyrically that you stop and repeat sentences to yourself. (This is something I think only small town Southerners--and maybe a few open-space Westerners--can achieve.) I loved those stories. But A Space Apart, which I had not read, is even better, fiercer, nailing the place and the people to the wall as only a passionate first novel can do. Narrated by different characters, this is the story, first, of John and Mary Katherine, young adults who have survived, barely, their upbringing in a tiny village by the old Preacher, a harsh, sanctimonious, selfish man whom we first meet as an aged and drooling invalid. Though he has one foot in the grave, he still manages to make life hell for his offspring. Perverse to the end, he demands, after railing against the Catholics for a lifetime, to confess to a priest on his death bed. John, who becomes the new Preacher in the larger town of Galatia, struggles, as does his sister, not to resemble the furious, doctrinaire, self-involved old Preacher. But we feel that John's immense effort to create himself as the opposite of all he has known leaves him little space for his own humanity. Boring himself in one of his own sermons he hears the yawns in the congregation, feeling that there is "no one to listening but God, and God is bored too." And by bringing home a pretty, affectionate but slightly unhinged young wife, Vera, the new Preacher sets himself up for a lifetime of crisis. Unable to even pretend to keep house, for example, she is tormented by church ladies who often drop by to check up on her. On one occasion, realizing she has badly blown the visit of an important three-person committee, Vera slips away from her guests, and without apparent thought, ("her mouth began to grin, to peel back over her teeth") opens a dress-up box and reappears as a dance hall girl in open-toed red shoes and a "pink nylon hostess gown she never wore because the neck was cut so low." The ensemble is completed by a green plastic ring from a Cracker Jack box, a not-so-subtle jab at one of the visiting ladies who ostentatiously wears a large ring over gloves. The committee is of course scandalized and John's prospects of advancement are destroyed. It is trouble he doesn't deserve and that Vera will never live it down; still the scene is a guilty pleasure for any reader who has experienced the sanctimony of some church folks. At first Vera had loved the town nestled in the mountains; she felt herself becoming "almost became an adult." She "loved John for beauty and Mary Katherine for moral excellence and the old Preacher for being perfectly himself." When her first baby, Lee, arrived Vera wore the infant "like a jewel." But soon Galatia "grew as vast and uncertain as the whole world" and her daughters, beloved but raised in a frustratingly haphazard way, grew angry and confused and, before long, became "old enough to judge."
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