Hazel Hunnicutt is in her 60s and still attached to the
memories of a long-lost love. Claudia Modjeski is 40-ish and
leading a very lonely life. Rebekah Shook, just this side of 30,
still lives in the same house as her fire-and-brimstone-believing
dad. Hazel's antique store, The Used World Emporium, is where all
their journeys cross --- a place filled with the junk of one
person. This junk eventually becomes the treasure of someone else,
much in the same way that each of the protagonists' connections
amidst the tumble of their difficult pasts serve or suit another
better than the person who originally survived it.
THE USED WORLD is Haven Kimmel's last book in a trilogy that brings
all the weirdness of the world to play in a tiny Indiana town
called Jonah, where "Fate can be decided by the weather and a storm
was gathering overhead." That storm is at turns both literal and
figurative, and so the book almost succeeds in being a potboiler
and very literary fiction at the same time.
Kimmel is an interesting writer. I hesitate to call her "Flannery
O'Connor Lite," yet there are some definitive reasons why that
title is appropriate. In interviews she has proclaimed that,
although a Midwesterner by birth, she considers herself a Southern
writer. Going to school in the South and living in Durham, North
Carolina, feels at home to her --- she thinks she has found her
emotional core in the red earth of this Southern landscape. So her
work drapes itself comfortably around some of the same ironic but
spiritual context that O'Connor wandered, though it feels like
she's trying too hard.
It's not that THE USED WORLD, with its spiritual clamoring and its
controversial topics (abortion, lesbianism, the angry and
threatening Fundamentalist fever), doesn't try for something
complicated and profound. Kimmel knows her way around a good turn
of phrase. And the complications of the characters --- Amos, the
wise minister; Vernon, the angry barnstormer of a believer;
Rebekah, the pregnant but ever-hopeful good daughter; and Hazel,
she of the lanky build and churning gut --- put them in the same
world as O'Connor's spiritually-reaching individuals.
The three women are bound by strange but profoundly altering
emotional connections --- through babies born out of wedlock and
lovers who can't take their feelings seriously enough. It feels
like too much comes to bear on these people; it is as if they are
part of some long-ago landscape that one might happen upon during a
car trip without a good GPS system. They live amidst codes of
behavior and interaction that don't seem appropriate in this day
and age, like they are part of some time warp where the modern
world of gadgetry and technological interaction hasn't yet become
part of the day-to-day activities in the global community.
The book makes a lot of noise about the past but doesn't seem to
exist in a now that most contemporary readers would recognize.
Although fire and brimstone are definitely on the menu of the
political conversation of our day, Jonah feels too steeped in it. I
wanted the real world to invade on it at some point and see where
it would all go when brought up against the prickly structures of
political correctness and feigned tolerance that underpins so many
of our top news stories today.
This is, however, a small desire. Haven Kimmel's ability to define
and dissect the well-worn spiritual and emotional decisions that
shape the lives of the main characters is impressive, and THE USED
WORLD is a fascinating place to visit.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 24, 2011
The Used World