Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970, 243 pages
Latha Bourne, the attractive postmistress of Stay More, a small town in the Arkansas Ozarks, didn't expect to see Every Dill again. More than ten years before, he had raped her, robbed the bank, and vanished - leaving her pregnant. Now Every has the nerve to reappear. An erotic yet wonderfully innocent tale of loss and of finding.
I'm on a kick of Ozarker fiction lately.
The lightning bug, or firefly, is neither a bug nor a fly, but a beetle. I like bug, because it has a cozy sound, a hugging sound, a snug sound, it fits her, my Bug.
Deep in the dark blue air sing these lives that make the summer night. The lightning bug does not sing. But of all these lives, it alone, the lightning bug alone, is visible. The others are heard but not seen, felt but not seen, smelled but not seen.
Latha Bourne is the metaphorical "lightning bug" of this layered, funny, profound, crude, and poetic novel about Stay More, Arkansas, a tiny town that never was deep in the Ozarks.
Stay More, like most small towns, is full of secrets and petty grudges. Years ago Latha was engaged to one man and in love with another. They both went off to war, and only one came back. Every Dill wanted to marry Latha, but she refused. After Every was run out of town, he came back, raped Latha, and robbed the bank. Then he disappeared for years and so did Latha. Latha came back, became the postmistress, and with a sort of inevitability, Every Dill returns too. He has become a revivalist preacher, and he's still in love with Latha. And Latha might still be in love with him.
"Dawny," a five-year-old with a crush on Latha, narrates parts of the book, sometimes telling it from his five-year-old perspective, other times narrating the story years later, as the author, which does not necessarily make this a true story. Dawny leaves doubt at the end as to whether he even lives. This subjunctive viewpoint doesn't make the book confusing — the story is tightly-scripted despite shifting back and forth in time and sometimes dipping into the POV of Latha (who is also not always a reliable narrator).
Harington's prose transports you to lazy, insect-filled bygone summers in the Ozarks and this fictional town that's as real as any that you'll actually find on a map. He's kind of like Faulkner with a sense of humor.
Doc Swain jumped out of his car and kicked it viciously with his foot. "Goddamn scandalous hunk of cruddy tinfoil!" he yelled and kicked it again. "Sonabitchin worthless gas-eatin ash can!" Then he turned wildly about, yelling, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"
"Here's your true sign, Every," Latha said to him. "The Lord wants you to be a doctor."
"Naw," he said. "I'm afraid it's something else."
There are also light-hearted references to bestiality, pedophilia, and rape, the sexual fantasies of a hot-to-trot unreliable narrator, and conversations with Jesus. Latha and Every Dill's "romance" is kind of twisted, yet believable and oddly touching. But if you're not cool with a rapist being the love interest, well, Harington makes no bones about the fact that Every raped Latha back before he left town. She's still kind of miffed about that when he returns. So, YMMV with this book.
Have you read Lightning Bug or any of Donald Harington's other novels?
Verdict: A bawdy, humorous work of Southern fiction, set in a fictional Ozark town full of messed-up pig-headed people with class differences you could separate with a thread. Donald Harington is not nearly as well-known as Faulkner or Daniel Woodrell, but I'd say he's in the same league with them. If you're in the mood for Ozarker fiction with a light literary touch and a quite a bit of sex, worth checking out.
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