A family twists with each turn as story travels across Atlanta
For the Journal-Constitution
Sunday, March 01, 2009
It’s fall 1998, and Louise Parker and her mother-in-law, Nanny Rose, are en route to the funeral of Nanny Rose’s cleaning woman, Sandy. After 33 years, Sandy’s duties had come to include helping Nanny Rose out of her bath and into her clothes, even her girdle. Recalling the intimacy, Nanny Rose sheds a tear —- not so much for the loss of her companion as for the problem of replacing her.
Their drive from affluent white neighborhoods to Sandy’s church in south Atlanta launches the first chapter of “Bound South,” a novel spanning 10 years in the life of the wealthy Parker family. When Louise and Nanny Rose make a “Bonfire of the Vanities”-style wrong turn off I-20 into an urban area that Nanny Rose indignantly calls “the slums,” it’s an early clue that Nanny Rose’s pink Chanel suit and Louise’s silver Lexus are fragile protection against what’s to come. Even as Nanny Rose reads the exit signs and Louise struggles to remember her husband’s directions, the car seems to have a mind of its own, heading straight for the inevitable —- a small group of African-American teenagers who temporarily menace the path of Louise’s car.
At first, the confrontation might read as a minor collision between the “new South” and the old. But it’s also a reminder of what has been there all along, carefully avoided and concealed in a grand old tradition of deceit and self-deception: The soul of the South is always just around the corner, waiting, whenever you make enough wrong turns.
“Bound South” travels the same inescapable route, as Atlanta writer Susan Rebecca White follows the members (legitimate and otherwise) of a Southern family on a collision course with what might loosely be called the soul’s progress.
After dissembling for decades, this generation of Parkers is destined for an eye-opening 10 years when every attempt to pretend they’re something they are not will boomerang —- beginning with Sandy’s funeral at the church in south Atlanta, where the term “open casket” has more than one meaning.
Lives governed by secrets, lies, class (or the lack of it) and religion are irresistibly laid out by three female characters: Louise, a wife, a mother and an art history major whose ambitions have been whittled down to collecting folk art; her teenage daughter Caroline, the “difficult child”; and Missy, the evangelical Christian whom we first meet at age 12 when her mother drags her along to the Parker house to help clean it.
Louise fills in the back story, including her father’s affair with a drugstore clerk, her mother’s depressions and the fact that her husband’s twin brother committed suicide in his senior year of college. Yearning for a more meaningful life, Louise collects spiritually themed folk art —- a set of white birds, a large painting of Jesus in drag —- but her struggles to transcend her role are nothing compared with those of her daughter Caroline, a teenager just a few bad decisions away from a high school scandal. An aspiring actress, she’s eager to reveal the underbelly of the Christian academy she attends where cheating, sex and even blackmail are a daily diet. It’s no accident that Caroline “lives to act,” as Louise puts it; acting is something the Parkers have been doing with astounding success for as long as anyone can remember.
Perhaps no one is struggling with belief, though, as much as Missy, desperate as only a born-again 12-year-old can be. She can’t separate her faith in Jesus from her faith that her father, who deserted her and her mother many years ago, will return to her any minute. Through their mutual love of the Christian soap opera “Salt of the Earth,” Missy befriends Louise’s indifferent son Charles, intending to “bring him to Jesus,” just one of her missions in life. Instead, Charles hatches a plan to reunite Missy with her real father: the man who now plays the part of the “rock” pastor in their favorite show.
The surface of “Bound South” sparkles with secrets. With every chapter, White deftly cracks open a little more of the Parker & Co. facade while layering meaning within meaning. When Missy steals one of Louise’s prized ornaments, a white bird with gemstone eyes, not only is it a childlike attempt to break free of a life she finds unfulfilling and without glamour, there’s a hint of something even deeper when she names the bird and tells herself, “I get the feeling that she belongs to me.” When Louise confesses to Caroline, via a letter she may or may not have sent, about a love affair she left behind and the real reason she married Caroline’s father, it foreshadows a long-hidden truth soon to reappear in another form. There’s more than one reason Nanny Rose Parker, the paragon of social etiquette and breeding, remains clueless about both her closest companion and her own son. As for the rock pastor star of “Salt of the Earth,” which is his real role? Is it the one he plays on television, or the one he plays as minister of a church in North Carolina —- or is it the one he’s played, on one level, ever since he was born?
Like its characters, “Bound South” comes dressed in innocence and comedy, a series of hilarious and poignant stories told in gossipy backyard-fence style. But underneath, its concerns are far more serious —- the role of religion in the South; dignity as it exists across class divisions; sexuality and its many perplexing forms; cultural rituals and their fragile but confining terms; what it means to listen to your soul and what can happen when you do more than just listen.