It was with a wary heart that I agreed to review “Southern Man” by Connie Chastain. I don’t enjoy leaving bad reviews nor do I relish finding a book so inane that I can’t finish it. When I read the blurb to “Southern Man”, I thought that it would surely fall into one of the aforementioned categories. After all, it’s a novel about the underbelly of feminism and an intimate look at the Boomer generation. This reviewer is a Feminist (with a capitol F, no less) and is frequently bewildered by the Baby Boomer generation. Needless to say, my putting my hands on this book seemed a dire recipe for a disaster of the broadest magnitude. But then I read a little–and the prose was good! And then I read a little more–and I had sympathy for the characters! And before I knew it, I had read the whole novel because I liked it.
“Southern Man”, set in Georgia around 1983, is the story of Troy Stevenson, a former college football player and conscientious corporate executive, who has a budding alcohol problem. His college sweetheart and adoring wife, Patty, is ready to forgive and move on, but Troy moves out to their lake house temporarily to confront his demons. Meanwhile at his workplace, a thoroughly hardboiled and unpleasant young woman by the name of Brooke Emerson lusts after Troy. What happens next embroils an entire community.
Ms. Chastain excels at penning a smoothly flowing, polished prose that is years ahead of first novel status. The artful way her sentences move, weaving one scene into the next, left me with high hopes for the rest of her novels. Despite this novel having a large cast of characters once you add in the cast of Troy’s workplace, I got to know each character well. They were powerfully and beautifully sketched. I developed a soft spot for Troy’s wife Patty Stevenson, a true woman of God with a magnificent and admirable devotion to her husband. Ms. Chastain sketches a Christian but passionate marriage with all the prowess of an armchair psychologist. I think the following scene illustrates Patty best, which shows what happens when her “friends” try to find out why Troy isn’t living at home.
“I know,” Nelda agreed. “If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a dozen times–‘Who would have thought Troy Stevenson would turn out to be such a fraud and a rat?'”
“Not that we ever said that,” Jackie said. “But I have to admit it’s pretty lowdown of him to run out on you and the kids that way.”
It was one thing to sit and suffer through a bitter rendition of problems in their homes and marriages; one thing to listen, bored and appalled, at their put downs of their own husbands, revelations Patty tried not to listen to and certainly did not respond to. However, it quite another to listen to them transfer their bitterness to Troy.
When they finally paused in their caustic dialog, Patty spoke in a deep, trembling voice.
“I won’t have someone come in here and trash my husband in his own home. I want all three of you to leave now.”
While I thought it wonderful that Troy and Melissa’s children took part in their story as children are too frequently made little more than window dressing, I did find them to be present too much. They were, at times, too precocious and twee to be entirely believable. I also found pacing to be slightly off in a few places. Troy’s nascent drinking problem emerges too late for my taste (although the lingering guilt over a teen-aged drinking episode was exceptionally well done and poignant) and could have been covered in greater detail. I also thought Brooke’s attempted seductions would come earlier in the novel than they did.
Very minor criticisms aside, I heartily recommend this novel to lovers of Christian fiction, readers like myself who are weary of Southern stereotypes, and all those Baby Boomers who have looked on with incredulity as their revered places of work have become tainted by “modern” policies that do more harm than good. Troy Stevenson is a well-crafted Southern hero that I believe encompasses the contemporary Southern man (it was set in the 80s, but that is near contemporary to me) much better than any that I have read of late. While I typically veer toward pre-1900s fiction, I can say with a clear conscience that this is a novel that I will be rereading and would like to see some WWII or roaring twenties fiction in the future from this author.