- Lisa Howorth
- Bloomsbury USA
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy
- June 27, 2014
Characters enrich this tale of a reopened murder inspired by real events in the author’s life.
The unsolved killing of the author’s 9-year-old stepbrother inspired Lisa Howorth, co-founder of Square Books in Oxford, Miss., to write Flying Shoes. Her story, told here with fictional characters, begins when Mary Byrd Thornton receives a call from a detective in Richmond ,Va. The detective tells her that police have reopened the 1966 case of her stepbrother’s murder.
“How much her mother and stepfather had known about what the police knew, or guessed, Mary Byrd had never known,” writes Howorth. “She suspected that each of them had different pieces of information, or misinformation, about the murder, as if they all had the same disease but different symptoms, or were in different stages of it, and there was no cure.”
But now the detective has new information, and it’s critical that Mary Byrd and her family meet with him as soon as possible. With 30 years of unresolved emotional baggage, Mary Byrd must travel from Mississippi to Virginia, through one of the worst storms of the decade. She’s furious and conflicted at the painful memories this trip brings up, but, as her friend Mann tells her, “this is not about you.”
Except, of course, it is. The heart of this novel is Mary Byrd herself – and how her 15-year-old self, making out in a car when her brother was murdered, shaped and informed her dysfunctional adult life. Mary Byrd has a sharp wit, and she’s a devoted mother and mostly faithful wife, but she is also a heavy drinker and a pill popper. Everything she is has accommodated this one awful event and what she knows or imagines about it. As fellow Mississippian William Faulkner observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
But Howorth mostly depicts her character across the painful emotional backdrop, as if what Mary Byrd welcomes most is distraction. It’s as if she is swimming upstream as she goes into delicious and hilarious detail about the family house, its clutter and collectibles, about trendy catalog for useless stuff, about squirrels and bunnies (“what was a squirrel but a bunny in spandex with short ears”), about flight attendants and fear of flying, about husbands, and snowstorms. It gives the novel a “not waving but drowning” quality, rendering all the more touching the few scenes when Mary Byrd breaks, or tells herself she “shouldn’t resort to melodrama.”
The reader assumes from the beginning that uncovering of truth about her stepbrother’s murder is the central tension of the book. Instead, it is more like a peg on which to hang the hat of character exploration. There’s Evagreen the housecleaner, “no pleasing her … except when you screwed up”; insufferable photographer and dinner guest Wiggs; Mary Byrd’s best friend Mann; and a hilarious truck driver, Foote. But my particular favorite is Teever, an illiterate Vietnam veteran and Mary Byrd’s drinking buddy. The brilliant bantering dialogue between these characters conveys a rich personal chemistry, and through these relationships Mary Byrd’s life is revealed.
The characters in her immediate family, however, are less fully drawn. Howorth is at her best in writing platonic friendships. She clearly knows this terrain inside and out, and pulls out all the stops. The sheer volume of material is extraordinary, but also makes the novel an unwieldy whole.
In a similar fashion, Howorth finds room to reflect in-depth on Mary Byrd’s ancestor by marriage, William Byrd, and on passages in his exhaustively detailed diary. These are delicious anecdotes. Her take on Byrd is heartfelt and so intelligently written that once she gets going, you just want her to run with it. But do these passages serve the novel as a whole? I suspect this material belongs in another book, one I hope she writes. Similarly, some superb writing in a late chapter from Teever’s point of view is well rendered but does not feed the story’s central arc. I loved reading it, but I would love it more as a short story.
Yet all the distractions are what make up this novel. In contrast, the central premise, wrapped up in the detective’s Richmond office, was a letdown. While I kept turning the pages to get to the bottom of the story, they ultimately read more like a whodunit, lacking the emotional and psychological complexity of the earlier, more incidental passages.
Toward the end, Mary Byrd reflects that “she’d learned early that this is the way the world works, randomly and chaotically, with billions and trillions of stories overlapping and colliding and entangling so that one could never feel that ones’ own story was one’s own.” Flying Shoes is likewise a chaotic collection of interlocking stories. It might be the way the world works. But is it how great literature works? Yes, I did say “great.” That’s because a great book is buried somewhere inside this baggy, generous, and uneven novel. It is an impressive debut, with heart and soul, in a long tradition of Mississippi writers.
Amanda Holmes (Duffy) is the author of I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, a novel.