Being a Yankee forcefully transplanted to Southern soil can be traumatic. I know --- born and bred a New Yorker, I have been uprooted several times to towns deep in the heart of Texas and back in Old Virginny. From the Bible verses on the front page of one local rag to themed Christmas trees to the near-religious fervor accorded high school football games, things Southern seemed as foreign as any overseas exotica from old National Geographic magazines. Meanwhile, Southern mores and manners confounded me. Telling someone "That Mrs. Thingummy is just so smart!" was not, I learned, a compliment but a stinging putdown that meant Mrs. Thingummy had no decorative aspect to speak of and, therefore, all that was left to comment on was her mind.
Yet so many Southern habits, ideas and traditions now crowd my mind and household that I can't imagine not having experienced the place (I still live in Virginia, but Arlington doesn't really count as The South, despite its having brought forth that region's very scion, Robert E. Lee). Ad Hudler, author of the new comic novel SOUTHERN LIVING, has been similarly affected. In one interview, Hudler talks about how often during five years in Georgia he heard women use the term "cute," pronounced as "ke-YOOT," meaning that the thing/person/behavior described had their firm (although not necessarily long-lasting) seal of approval. (I can confirm this, having myself been in tiny towns full of boutiques whose purpose seems otherwise hazy and heard fellow shoppers say things like "Lookit this li'l Beanie Baby --- isn't it ke-YOOT?")
Hudler is also a transplanted Yankee, having grown up in Colorado with a firmly feminist mother. He found his little nuclear family living in Dixie when his journalist wife took a job with the Macon, Georgia newspaper. Hudler, whose previous novel HOUSEHUSBAND detailed his stay-at-home lifestyle, found that he had plenty of time to observe the local customs and local gentry. The result is SOUTHERN LIVING, a book that manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, deadly accurate, and yet still compassionately kind to the American South.
To maintain a balance between humor and candor Hudler uses the chapter-opening excerpts from "Chatter," a call-in line established by the new Northern editor of the Selby, Georgia Reflector. Randy Whitestone believes that "Chatter" will be the kebab rack on which local residents will skewer themselves like so many chicken chunks, talking about quaint Selby traditions and airing dirty laundry. Hudler wisely allows the bits of "Chatter" to stand alone and shows that the only resident on the spit is Whitestone himself (who derides Southern culinary specialties but keeps getting fatter and fatter).
Meanwhile, Margaret Pinaldi, Donna Kabel, and Suzanne Parley are trying to fulfill their wildly different needs. Margaret, a New Yorker and daughter of a famed abortion-rights doctor whose deathbed bequest is her Selby home, edits the "Chatter" column and is trying to understand her gently growing romance with very local yokel DeWayne. Recently disfigured in an automobile accident, Donna has begun a career in the produce department of the Selby Kroger supermarket and is changing lives all over town with her newfound get-up-and-go --- especially her widowed father's. Suzanne, a quiet alcoholic and even quieter criminal, attempts to save face by faking a pregnancy.
All three women will cross paths with each other and with colorful Selby characters, such as bigoted old boy Buckner Meeks, frustrated (but not closeted) designer John David, and haughty Dogwood Festival chair Madeline VanDermeter (who winds up in a most undignified position). During their various comings and goings, Hudler takes no prisoners. He has a wonderful time airing what must have been his many frustrations with "Southern living" while he was there. However, despite his deadly aim at cherished chestnuts like waffle houses and Bible study groups, Hudler understands why those chestnuts grow so beautifully in Georgia clay. His final scene, in which Donna and her father share a life-altering dessert, shows his sympathy for the South and his bittersweet understanding that its unique nature may not last forever.
By the book's end, the three heroines (Harpies? Graces? Muses? Fates?) have found resolution --- and while none of them gets what she expected from life, they are all better off for having had their time in Selby. Kind of like Ad Hudler and I are better off having had our time in the South. Y'all read this book, y'hear? It's ke-YOOT!
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on January 23, 2011