BOOK REVIEW / Mr Plain shares a joke with Mrs Normal: 'A Short History of a Small Place' - T R Pearson: Secker & Warburg, 9.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
THE village of fools, as described in T R Pearson's first novel, is a literary commonplace. The Jewish town of Chelm, the German town of Schilda, the English town of Gotham are all inhabited by marvellous idiots whose goings-on have something of the joy of nonsense literature, pursuing the absurd with uttermost seriousness. The town of Neely, North Carolina, the 'small place' of Pearson's first novel, published 10 years ago in the United States, forms part of this prestigious and silly geography.

A generation of readers brought up on Saturday morning serials will have no trouble recognising the inhabitants of Neely. They are reduced to brilliant little ticks, to catchphrases, to idees fixes and hobbyhorses. They are Ozzie and Harriet come again to a sort of life, endlessly pursuing their tiny hilarious obsessions. They are country-wise. They are invulnerable, undiminished even in death. Disease, acts of God, unemployment, war and famine cannot touch them. They are cloyingly cute.

The Neely villagers are seen through the singularly perceptive eyes of a young boy, Louis Benfield. Daddy is 'afflicted by what Momma called an involvement with tobacco', Momma has a penchant for dusk and lies in bed fearing the scheming and slithering slugs in the basement and 'waiting for the assault', Sheriff Burton has a fondness 'for paraphernalia' and wears 'a badge on his hat and a badge on his shirtpocket and a badge in a wallet on his left hip' and Uncle Warren is convinced that he's 'the rightful king of Prussia'. The elderly Epperson sisters decide one fine day that they are triplets - even though they are all of different ages and one of them is a cousin - and get the entire town to sign a paper verifying their claim.

The village doyenne is a rich, once beautiful spinster called Miss Myra Angelique Pettigrew, who like a transatlantic Miss Havisham locks herself up in her house after a starcrossed love affair. The secret of her tragedy (both 'secret' and 'tragedy' are here exaggerated terms) is not revealed until her death when, after a brief public appearance, Miss MAP throws herself down from the top of the town's water tower. A monkey (known as Mr Britches because of his costume) accompanies Miss MAP in her seclusion, but survives her demise. Regrettably, the monkey's escapades occupy a good fourth of the novel.

The Saturday morning serials have the virtue of being timeless. No one needs to have seen the adventures of Donna Reed in any particular order and certainly not to their end (if one might commit the lese-majeste of imagining that Donna Reed ever snuffed it) to follow the dramatic development of any given episode. Much the same is true of the inhabitants of Neely: the reader can switch on the novel almost anywhere, read the funny episode concerning Mrs Browner, 'plain and normal as a bar of soap' and the death of her sheriff husband, or one of the Nances and the Gottliebs fighting over a bunch of ducks, or that other one, so perfect for the Christmas holidays, of young Benfield and the other Neely kids setting out, 'like Commander Scott', to get groceries in the first snowstorm - and know exactly what to expect in the other 400-odd pages.

Sometimes the country chumminess gets a little nauseating, as when Daddy tells little Benfield about the facts of life: 'Well, a man can like a woman,' he explains, 'because she's pretty to him, and a woman can like a man because he's handsome to her. And sometimes a man can like a woman because she's smart or funny or goodhearted and sometimes a woman can like a man because he's all those things, too. Do you see what I mean?' Donna Reed could not have put it better.

In A Short History of a Small Place, T R Pearson has written an entertaining, innocuous, at times witty and at times trite novel which, happily bouncing its way from episode to episode, barely ever strikes a false note and hardly ever rings a true one.

Beatrix Campbell is ill.

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