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General Fiction Review    

 

The Bridge
by Doug Marlette
HarperCollins, 2001
ISBN: 0-06-018630-5
 
 

 

Art rules! 

Doug Marlette, whose nerve-splitting and heroic political cartoons hit home when I first had a chance to experience them 20-25 years ago and whose strip Kudzu was one of the best “comics” of the 1970s and 1980s, has written a novel. When I first moved into this book, I wondered if his characters would actually be caricatures, whether his world would be that of Kudzu or the up-East crowd. I moved gingerly into The Bridge, and found myself soon enraptured with its magic. In the beginning, the successful big-city Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper cartoonist Pick Cantrell is a bit too much Marlette, having the same sensitivities and talent. At first I thought Pick Cantrell a carbon copy of his creator. 

Then that falls apart. At first, it is a bit too set-up: the outrageously talented and stubborn Southern boy giving up the spotlight of stardom in New York to go back home to his roots, where he and his gorgeous but slightly chilly wife and their sensitive son find a fixer-upper in the tiny town of Eno, North Carolina, not far from Chapel Hill. Pushing beyond the mundane plot, Marlette, the writer, uses words the way he used the pen and pencil with his most poignant and powerful cartoons. 

From the grandmother, Mama Lucy, whom he has always despised, partially because she insisted that Pick’s father put his mother away in a mental institution, where the mother died while Pick was away at college at Florida State University, he gradually comes to terms with a personal and profound history of the cotton mill industry of the 1920s southland. He discovers a patchwork of personal history in dramatic bits and pieces from the old woman who has been holding many secrets that bind the family, the land, the industry, and society together. It is not a pretty history. The pangs of guilt on all sides reach deep into the very soul. And that history does not come easily. 

Because it does not come easily, the story moves to a new level of complexity. 

Marlette, the artist, draws his complete picture with shadows, each twist and turn of his pen bringing out a new emotion, the flick of a heartfelt moment, the lingering hurt or doubt over something said years before, a prickly little moment that suddenly rises in remembrance to a place of command and authority, and meaning. 

His world of Eno grows larger with each new story, with every plot complication. The author is at home with the “linthead” Cantrell kinfolks, able to delineate between the various cousins, the aunts and uncles, and friends. He is equally adept at portraying a houseful of New South sycophants parading their new-rich phoniness, their prissy paper-thin sophistication, and their insincerity. Their new liberalism grates on the nerves as they speak their political correctness in a swirl of conformity, and we view it through Pick’s own honest sarcasm. 

Through a year of hard work, renovating the house, Oaklawn, 1833, fighting to hold his marriage together, Pick Cantrell delves into his grandmother’s world, when people showed their true colors in the nitty-gritty fight between the workers and the mill owners. In some tough scenes that the novelist unfolds with a true artist’s touch, the reader experiences time and again the emotions that first consumed the girl who was growing into young adulthood. Mama Lucy’s best friend, Annie Laura, a neighbor in the mill town, where the children went to work at the textile looms at 13, 14 and 15, is realized through the girls’ inner-action, facing the terrible conditions yet playing at being girls. 

Their sweetness and innocence clashing with a gray-shrouded reality, a violence that is as real as Annie Laura being caught beneath the jerking iron wheels of a train, her leg being smashed and later amputated, a foreman rubbing his grimy hands against a girl’s arm and breathing his stinking breath into her face, and asking her to disappear for a few minutes with him, or a group of neighbors firing guns against friends and family. 

Juxtapose such violence with the beauty of Chicken Bridge lighted with jack-o’lanterns on Haloween night, a boy and girl whose love is heartfelt but hopeless, standing on a rocky ledge, kissing, knowing their love is doomed. 

And later, “Mama Lucy stared at the sketch of Chicken Bridge at night. The moon hung over the treetops, shining like a silver dollar and casting its cool glow on the sparkling water below. Jack-o’lanterns winked like stars along the railing in the distance. She reached out with wrinkled hands and caressed the image with a lover’s touch her expression dreamy yet strangely focused.” 

Like Pat Conroy’s Beach Music, I wanted The Bridge to go on and on, keep building through sorrow after sorrow, sweetness after bittersweet remembrance, the joy of cheap wine mixed with the sickness of moonshine, patching together a quilt of life that is, in the end, so bright and beautiful that it is overwhelming. Although “The Bridge” stands on its own as a very fine novel, it suggests Conroy’s work that lingers in memory as bigger and finer and more beautiful. 

Novels are built, like bridges. Foundations are laid, trestles are stacked, finishing touches added. Doug Marlette has elevated his reader to a new height. His words carry a message, weighing more than the sum of their parts. Art not only exists on canvas and paper, it soars across the pages of this book, like the white-tailed hawk who becomes a character in The Bridge. It resonates with wonder. 

Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews 

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