Rebecca Meredith's first published novel The Last of the Pascagoula (La Sirene Press, 2011) can proudly take its place in a long line of southern fiction from Flannery O' Conner and Harry Crews through Lee Smith, Bobbie Ann Mason, Dorothy Allison, Sue Monk Kidd, Kathryn Stockett and others. Meredith's gripping novel is masterfully constructed and skillfully rendered with a powerful sense of place. I could not put it down nor could I get the characters out of my mind. The web site for the book decribes The Last of the Pascagoula as " a novel about coming of age, art and madness, assisted suicide and the love of a good, if dead, dog."
The Last of the Pascagoula is a love story---but like no love story you have ever read before. It is a captivating and compelling love story of the most untraditional kind, a story about agape and philos-- love that accepts without question and endures without recompense. The Last of the Pascagoula is a story, as Harry Crews said of his own fiction,about "people doing the best they can with what they got to do with."
In the south it is not unusual for folks to "claim kin." As a rule, this means that someone who is not actually related by blood is treated as if he or she were. In Meredith's novel, claiming kin means creating a family from whatever pieces one can find in one's world. To misquote what Voltaire said about God, if family did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. Thus the marginalized characters in Meredith's novel create the family they never had.
The story is told in three parts. Part One begins at the conclusion, in 2005 just prior to Katrina, when Kate Lynn, now in her fifties, receives a package and a note from Tom Carmody in New Orleans from whom she has not heard for thirty five years. Part Two of the novel is a flashback, telling the story of their lives in Pascagoula, Missisippi, in the tumultuous sixties, their mutual estrangement from the mainstream of society, and their wonderful and peculiar attachment to one another and their friend Claire Doucette.
One might think that using the technique of flashback is like getting the cart before the horse, but in The Last of the Pascagoula, flashback is the perfect choice. From the opening chapter to the epilogue, we are held in thrall, intrigued by the story of Kate's traumatic childhood and her chance acquaintance with the strange and enigmatic Tom who tells Kate "there are plenty of things you can be that are worse than dead and, believe me, as far as my family goes, being queer is three or four of them." We are charmed by the renegade and wonderful Doucette family, and we are mesmerized by Kate's little sister Martha who has been so damaged by their mother's long illness and untimely death that she attaches herself like a lichen to her sister Kate and to a mongrel dog named Martha .
Flannery O'Conner writes in Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction: " in the works of the grotesque, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left.... Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected." Such is the quality of the fiction of Rebecca Meredith
Although the adventures of the three friends is at the heart of this bildungsroman, the cast of characters is right out of the gothic and "Christ haunted" south of Flannery O'Conner. The characters are macabre, grotesque, bizarre, side-splittingly funny, and heart-rendingly painful. From Felicia the "exotic" young albino woman of Biggers Brothers circus who befriends Tom, Kate, and Claire, to "Louis by Day" (Louise by Night) who introduces Tom to the alternative culture of New Orleans, to Claire's Cajun communist father who is so devoted to Claire's mother that he patiently endures a house full of pink cats and squawking geese, the novel teems with fascinating characters who alternately infuriate us and captivate our hearts. The novel, with its curious and eccentric melange of humanity, is reminiscent of Katherine Dunn's 1989 novel Geek Love.
More than human characters assume significance in The Last of the Pascagoula, there is a soulful figure of the Virgin Mary in Our Lady of Sorrow Catholic Church carved from cypress wood by a Cajun in the swamps of Louisiana and rejected by the congregation until their young and artificially beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary was knocked over and broken by a careless altar boy (Tom, perhaps). Then there is Martha, not Kate's sister, but her sister's dog who has been stuffed and fitted with wings and who is Kate's sister's constant companion. Tom develops a deep and enduring connection with dark and sorrowful Madonna, and in Chapter 13 of Part Three, there is a touching evocation of the Pieta. .
The central metaphor for the book is the demise of a tribe of Pascagoula Indians who, according to legend, drowned themselves in the Singing River rather than be conquered by the bloodthirsty Biloxi Indians. The legend of the Pascagoula is a metaphor about choosing one's own destiny, and in the end everyone, especially Tom Carmody, must make a difficult and painful choice
Numerous writers have high praise for Meredith's debut novel. David Lummis writes, "In this book, there are shades of many great storytellers, from Flannery O’Connor to Pat Conroy. But Meredith’s wise, humorous voice rings out as a unique and welcome addition to the annals of southern literature. I cannot recommend this book highly enough."
Author Elizabeth Clark-Sterns says, " The Last of the Pascagoula is crafted with such skill, such love of place and people, to read it is to experience what is most delightfully human, imperfect, and triumphant in us all. "
The novel recently received the Kirkus Star Award, presented to books of "remarkable merit." Kirkus calls the novel "A compelling, beautifully written novel that is an intimate portrayal of friendship and redemption."
Rebecca Meredith currently lives in Seattle with her husband and the latest of her many beloved dogs, but cannot stay away from the Gulf Coast and New Orleans for too long at a stretch. She is currently working on a sequel to The Last of the Pascagoula tentatively entitled Indian Summer. Meredith's book can be ordered from her web site thelastoftheapascagoula.com or amazon.com.
-----Penne J. Laubenthal
Further Exploration on Swampland