Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Persia Cafe, by Melany Neilson

Ever since attempting Faulkner, I've always had a strange relationship with Southern literature. It's exasperating to read about the South and the thinking that inspired George Wallace (who was actually far more interesting than his infamous chant of "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" would indicate). Coming from California--mentioned in the book as a place to get away from constrictive social mores--reading about the Southern mentality before President Johnson and the Civil Rights Act seems just plain foreign. But happy "normalcy" creates the same dullness, as Tolstoy might have said; indeed, perhaps the South has produced its share of writers because of the turbulence caused by the civil rights movement, and the weight of history upon the Southern damp soil.

If Faulkner were a woman who could cook and wanted to write Mississippi Burning, The Persia Cafe might have been the result. Food is the motif that emanates throughout the book, placing its protagonist, a cafe owner, Fanny Leary, right on the DMZ of the racial divide. Of course, the notion of food separating people rather than bringing them together shows the reader the type of town that is Persia, Mississippi. Some passages are absolutely golden:

"You have to say this about the cafe: Smells curtained the place. Odors from one room climbed to another. Cinnamon. Frying bacon. Blackberry cobbler, serene as ink. There was a smell in our sheets like bread dough. There were nights when moonlight spilling along the river and through the window gave the wallpaper dimension."

Right away, we learn that Fannie Leary isn't your typical Southerner:

"I for one had often thanked the Lord that I did not have to listen to Brother Works's sermons as long as there was a pot of coffee and a pillowed bed, a newspaper, the loose-sheeted freedom of a Sunday morning. "

However, in the middle of the novel, some Southern soap opera makes its appearance, bogging down the novel. The beginning of The Persia Cafe is interesting, as we are getting to know the characters; the ending, absolutely enthralling, as the plot slowly unfolds; but the middle seems like one story too much, as it focuses on Fanny's alcoholic husband, a Southern stereotype that dilutes the novel's interesting prose and plot. Still, some passages are too good not to share:

"So this too was Will. Pacing there, I had what I thought was a refreshing perspective and saw that the boy I had married had not been true and fine but just a boy. I saw that he had not been mine but merely near, and though he had taken me in his arms he had not fallen for me, but had merely felt that mysterious jolt in the pulse."

Still, as soap operas go, that's not a bad piece. And again, I take you back to food to show you that the author never loses her touch for too long:

"I hung up. It rang again. I picked up and hollered, 'What the hell you want?' A listening silence, then click, the dial tone, a long hollow blowsy tunnel, spit and crackle, like frying eggs."

And this passage also references food, mentioning cats, "their nostrils sniffing the meaty air...soft paws scurried, tiny white fangs tore at bones, backs arched and tails batoned and fur rose and brushed my ankles, making electric shocks."

But the real sadness of the South is that one never truly knows one's neighbor because of the secrets and lies, buried with the strange fruit Billie Holliday sang about. Laws and social mores that constrict human interaction prevent possibilities, and this is where the novel enters a more sophisticated realm:

"And I was still mad at her for being black and being my friend, two things that together she was never supposed to have been."

"Well I had not known. I had not known; how could I in this town where it seemed you could never really know another person? I was alone in the world, in a way that made me feel the dryness in my mouth and the deep ache in my breathing, and the darkness rising through the room, like smoke."

There are two sides to this loneliness. From one perspective, loneliness is good, at least where injustice is concerned--better to be alone than complicit in the company of apathy. Thus, the reader will empathize with Fanny, but also wonder why the situation arose in the first place. Looking around, especially in San Jose, CA, Mississippi just forty five(!) years ago seems like another planet. And it is here that the crux of the novel is revealed. Southern novels seem strange to many readers because they chronicle a bygone era. The key is to remember that this tension did actually exist once upon a time. Without suspending modern day notions, Southern novels make no sense, and we should be glad that reality has to be pushed aside to let Southern literature into our lives.

Still, no Southern novel would be complete without some reference to the thick swampy climate, and I will leave you with that weight:

"I didn't find much to say to that. So I continued to sit there for quite a while, holding Mattie's hand, which she seemed to want, and looking out into the night, which coiled dampsweet and thick toward the river, in the direction of the cafe."

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