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Southern girls hit the city

MISS UNDINE'S LIVING ROOM by James Wilcox POLITE SEX by James Wilcox each Fourth Estate pounds 6.99
JAMES WILCOX's earlier fiction was published here in the mid-Eighties, to good reviews, though not to the wider attention it deserved. Now Fourth Estate are re-launching this heir to the Southern novel's impressive tradition with Polite Sex (1991), hitherto unpublished in this country, and a reprint of Miss Undine's Living Room (1987).

In the five years that separate the two books, Wilcox's art matured enormously. In the earlier work, the town of Tula Springs, Louisiana, with its population of eccentrics and ultimately loveable mavericks, suggests a genre a little too satisfied with itself. The novel's story is of a stubborn woman coping with an uncle not quite right in the head who is suspected of murder. Wilcox, by using third-person irony more knowing than sharp, succumbs somewhat to the risk of self-indulgence. And the alleged crime at the book's centre, a 91-year-old man's killing of his lazy home attendant, generates insufficient emotion. Nevertheless, there are real delights to be found. The insensitive Olive, her slobbish husband and the incomer dental student on whom she becomes fixated all transcend their too determinedly humorous presentation.

Humour and irony are by no means lacking in Polite Sex, but by now Wilcox's style has become a far more flexible instrument. Uprooting his characters from their Louisiana background, he endows their petty failures and triumphs in the city with dignity and poetry.

Mrs Tilman, very much the self-possessed doctor's wife back in Tula Springs, Louisiana, is just another easily harassed middle-aged woman in New York City; Clara, her daughter, can hardly recognise her. But in fact the city has wrought changes in Clara herself, too, and in Emily Brix, a young woman from her home town who, in this very different environment, becomes her closest friend. Emily and Clara are united not just by their background, but by a shared ambition. For them self-realisation is inextricable from success in the media world - whether theatre (for Emily) or advertisement modelling (for Clara). It's as if neither quite believes in the validity of their own identity unless there is public recognition of her outer form.

Both young women are deeply innocent, and imbued with a Southern attachment to the virginal that will persist through their lives. The year is 1971, and Polite Sex follows Emily and Clara through to the opening of the present decade. However much they feel themselves to be distanced from it, Tula Springs continues to influence their responses to the people and life around them. Emily, daughter of a self-made man, and shorter, quirkier and more intellectual than Clara, first enjoys an almost asexual relationship with an older married man, Lucas. Then, after knowing him for a remarkably short time, marries Hugh, not because there is passion on either side but because there's a needy loneliness.

Hugh is a divinity student, son of a rich family (his surname is Van Der Bilt, to the embarrassment of himself and his wife) and for all his genuine dilemmas, something of a spoilt child. The disintegration of this marriage and the double nature of the rivals to Emily in Hugh's heart and imagination constitute the novel's major dramatic interest.

Clara, the more beautiful, and of the two the more temperamentally inclined to marriage, is more successful than Emily in both love and work. After she has warded off the macho hunk, F X Pickens (who appears in Wilcox's first novel, Modern Baptists), she falls in love with that older married man of Emily's. And she attains a modest stardom. But in a beautiful epiphany, Wilcox makes us realise that, though we have been concentrating on their differences, the two women are not just profoundly similar but of the same substance. Two male bystanders see them "merged into the golden shade of a grove ... to become indistinguishable, like one."