27 July 2011

Dorothy Allison: Cavedweller (1998)

Like Reynolds Price, Dorothy Allison comes from North Carolina. And like Price's first novel A Long and Happy Life, which I wrote about here, Allison's Cavedweller begins with a motorcycle, a macho guy riding with a young woman behind him. The difference, though, is that the ride in Price's novel leads to a funeral, whereas the ride in Allison's novel causes a funeral.

The state is California and the dead man is the rock singer Randall Pritchard, who - before becoming too reckless – had lived with Delia Byrd, who had run away from her abusive husband Clint in Georgia.

Delia then decides to leave Venice Beach, where she lives with Cissy – her young daughter by Randall – to return to Georgia, where Amanda and Dede, the two daughters she had by her husband – are living with her mother-in-law.

So Delia drives Cissy across America, away from a rock-and-roll lifestyle in coastal California to smalltown Cayro, which like Cairo, GA, is some way off the I–75, although this is fictional and north of Atlanta, and the nearest town is Marietta.

The novel charts Delia's painful progress through the still extant perceptions – on the part of most of the population – of psychological damage of her own making, through living with her three daughters and for a short time with Clint, whom – teeth firmly gritted – she nurses through the terminal stages of cancer.

And as the years pass, the attention shifts to the development of the daughters, all of whom are very different: Amanda, a religious fanatic, marries another religious fanatic; Dede loves Nolan, but will only ever live with him unmarried as she fears love dies after marriage; and Cissy - surely by no means the only  'cavedweller' of the title, as this must be multi-layered – has an increasingly serious interest in speology, and will return to California to try her hand at studying a related university subject.

But to return to the comparison between Reynolds and Allison: when Dede shoots Nolan in a fit of jealous madness, Delia says: 'What did I ever teach you but how dangerous love is?' The line might have come straight out of a Reynold Price novel, as a central theme in his novels is that love often kills (although in this case, Nolan survives).

And another major theme of Reynolds's is how genetic traits are passed on from generation to generation. In Cavedweller, Delia also tells Dede, in the same scene: '[I]f you want to know a man's heart, look at his mama. Look into her eyes, not his. That will show you what to expect.'

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