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Volume 26, Number 7 — July 2019

Book Review: Where Trouble Sleeps

Helen Wilson
Helen Wilson

Not a mystery, not a crime story...

By Helen Wilson | September 26, 2010

Not a mystery, not a crime story rather, this is a short novel about a dog named Trouble and the humans who inhabit his world.

Author Clyde Edgerton, a North Carolina native, uses Trouble along with the major characters to bring alive a community at a crossroads, both literally and metaphorically. Set in the American South in the 1950s (but not the Leave It To Beaver 1950s), the author's words show a love of small places as seen through his unfiltered eyes. As the story meanders through a week or so in the lives of the people of Listre, Edgerton presents the believable blend of hypocrisy and affection that exists when folks live where expectations and ambitions are in conflict with one another.

The novel is built around the entrance of a traveling con man named Jack Umstead who arrives in the small town of Listre driving a Buick 8. The author slowly exposes what happens when Umstead decides to stop and case the area for a robbery or some scheme that will give him the means to travel on to his next stop. As the story unfolds, store keepers, little old ladies who shoot chickens, a church secretary who lives in her office, little boys who listen and look and know more than most of the adults — all offer themselves up to the reader and expose the life that goes on when no one is looking. In the process, Umstead unknowingly and uncaringly becomes the cat among the pigeons. Primarily through Umstead's eyes, the reader sees the ways in which the people of Listre affect one another's lives and the ways in which Umstead's presence changes that closed circle of relationship patterns that have been unchanged for years. Reminiscent of the social observations of Mark Twain, Edgerton's novel clearly shows a slice of a world that is long gone but that is still present in memory and in tiny pieces of small town culture anywhere.

What reader could resist a style that opens the novel with the sentence: "Alease Toomey sat at her dresser, putting on lipstick, getting ready to take her son up to see the electric chair for the first time." That same almost pictorial style is enhanced with the liberal use of such homey details as saltine crackers and Jergens lotion, by names like Aunt Beulah, and places like the Settle Inn. Tiny snippets of Listre life — like the bull dog Trouble, who can foretell the weather — make this a "real" place. Minor characters also help to create a sense of time and place that will make the reader sure that he/she has actually visited, if not Listre, at least some place that could have been that small community. The local one-armed drunk who just happens to be an army veteran of the World War I, a clergyman who is having a crisis of faith, and a recent high school graduate who longs to experience life outside of the confines of Listre — these become not the stereotypes they might have been in the hands of a less talented writer, but rather the flesh and blood folks that live in all small towns.

While it looks at the town as a whole, Edgerton's novel also focuses on individual residents. Inez Daniels, a minor character in the story, is quietly developed into a portrait of many women who live a life of desperation with a "no account husband" and two children to raise. Then there is Mr. Train who spends his days in a wheelchair repairing radios, and the Weams family that seems to just exist around the edges of life. And while a story that deals with religion and alcoholism, con men and clergymen might turn out to be on the dark side, Edgerton seems to have been born like Sabatini's main character, "with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." He does not make fun of the people in his novel but instead conveys the idea that there is a tinge of humor in the quirks of humanity. The children of Listre provide much of that humor. When an emergency happens, young Stephen Toomey is forced to enter the forbidden world of the store where men drink beer. His reaction to the picture of a nude woman on the store's wall makes a light counterpoint to a tragedy that has just occurred. Similarly, there is the potentially awful, but locally famous "mule-truck head-on" accident that provides additional humor with each re-telling as the men stand talking on the front porch of the Gulf Service Station and the children drink Big Tops and mimic the grownups by "smoking" candy cigarettes.

Born and raised near Durham, N.C., Edgerton writes with an understanding of Southern culture that comes from having spent most of his life being educated and later teaching in Southern schools and colleges. His earlier works such as Raney and The Floatplane Notebooks gave evidence of his ability to transmit a sense of "Southerness" that goes beyond regional literature and becomes a look at people who represent Everyman no matter where they live and work.

While a majority of Edgerton's works deal with many of the concepts found in Where Trouble Sleeps, such as religion and the conflict between right and wrong or personal independence and community expectations, Edgerton's novels do not fall into the trap of repeating one another. One look at his Lunch at the Picadilly makes that clear. He also moves outside the realm of the novel with his poetry and works found in collections of material from major Southern writers. As evidenced by a Guggenheim Fellowship and high praise for his work in reviews in the New York Times, Edgerton's writing is not just for Southerners but for any reader who enjoys becoming a part of other lives, other places, other times.

A final note: Barter Theatre will present an adaptation of the novel Where Trouble Sleeps Oct. 9-Nov. 11, 2010. Click HERE to find out more.

About the Reviewer: After following her late husband around the U.S. for years, Helen Wilson finally settled in Damascus, Va., and taught in the English Department of Virginia Highlands Community College in the early 1990s. Now retired, she lives in Abingdon with an aged Weimaraner, a loom and a house full of books.