EDITOR’S NOTE: This review appeared in the April 21, 2003, issue of National Review.
Waiting for April, by Scott M. Morris (Algonquin, 352 pp., $24.95)
“There’s nothing to read,” you sometimes hear. All the good literature is in the past, and what we have today is trash or pretension. Well, that’s not true. I could give you a list — if not a terribly long one — but for now I’ll simply alert you to Waiting for April, the second published novel of Scott M. Morris.
His first was The Total View of Taftly (2000), more a novella, a strange and striking tale of the South, featuring what some call “grotesques” — although this is a term that Morris rejects as . . . well, grotesque. Taftly caused the literary world to stir a little, and, with the arrival of April, it should be fully awake.
Who is April? She is a woman, not a month, though her sister’s name is June. April is the aunt of the narrator and protagonist, Royce Sanders Collier, known as “Roy.” But to describe her as his aunt is too narrow, and misleading. She is the center of his existence and the love of his life — and by “love,” we don’t mean the nephewly kind, which is part of why the entire novel throbs with desire, disorientation, and danger.
From the beginning, both “aunt” and “nephew” sensed that our relationship wasn’t destined to be traditional. As I grew older she’d sometimes refer to herself as my “old aunt April” and the like, but as soon as such words came out of her mouth we’d both begin laughing because they seemed so ludicrous. What a delightful secret we were! Great buddies, mad confidants, we were linked by eternal golden braids . . .
When Roy was a toddler — at a “tender toddling age,” as Morris puts it, typically — his life was “divided into exactly two states of existence: waiting for April and being with April. There was no third.” April is beautiful: and not just beautiful, but “shockingly” beautiful — the most beautiful girl and woman (for this novel stretches out over years) anyone ever saw, a beauty that dizzifies everything around it. Morris spends much of the book describing the beauty of April, and he is a master describer of women, as can be seen in Taftly too. He lingers over them in an almost forbidden way, coming back at them again and again, laying on a thousand details, with a huge variety of language. He appreciates how they look, smell, move. April is (so far) his supreme creation.
Not that [she] was perfect. I shall never forget the shock of discovering that the prescription dandruff shampoo I had always assumed belonged to scruffy Leonard [Roy’s uncle] was in fact dewy April’s. She was an inveterate nail biter as well and had terrible toes. I could go on, but as anyone who has had any experience with a woman who is not only beautiful but also lively and tenderhearted knows, such details take on their own peculiar charm, so what’s the use?
Morris’s attentions are not confined to women, however. Everything is within his ken, and pen. Consider what he does with Roy’s father — who dies (is murdered? commits suicide?) when Roy is only six:
. . . he had the gift of never appearing ordinary. It always seemed he’d just arrived from some important destination and might be gone to another at any moment. All his movements were highly stylized. He gestured with his hands in an almost feminine manner [oops, women again], halting these motions to gently toy with the flesh atop his knuckles. His nose was aquiline and his lips a little too red. He kept his hair, which was the color of cola, well trimmed. He never did anything in a hurry, though if he wanted to he could become very aggressive and in a matter of seconds change his demeanor into something capable and dangerous.
The novel begins with a Prologue, a powerful thing, almost a set-piece, preparing us for the journey to come. In these first pages — and throughout the book — Morris sort of teases you, though not unfairly, compelling you to keep turning pages. The book is a romance, a mystery, a novel of manners, an exploration of culture, a feast of language, including wordplay. Set in the (fictional) town of Citrus, Florida, it has about six leading characters: Roy, and Roy’s parents, and April and Leonard, and a fellow named Sterns Reel, the intellectual and artist who owns a bait shop. “[I]t’s a constant decision against suicide every waking moment,” he says.
The novel moves Roy from birth — 1966 — through college. It’s a novel of the South, yes, with red velvet cake and dipping (meaning, tobacco). But it goes planets beyond that.
Right from that Prologue, the sentences click and score. When Morris is writing, he’s apt to write about writing, to wit, “In the parlance of romance and certain romans à clef she was coltish, though never skittish in any genre.” Or how about, “Dishabilled in the moonlight, to verb it up a bit . . .”? His wordplay manages to delight without cloying: “A canyon? Grand. But a cypressy bayou at misty daybreak was grander.” He gives you long, baroque, Faulkneresque sentences, and short, sweet, Hemingwayesque ones: “Sterns was a bachelor, though not by choice. The man was simply too fat to marry.” He can sometimes seem old, sage, and spiritual; and then — next page — he seems young, unbuttoned, and hormonal. His ear for the vernacular, with its ain’ts, is brilliant. And his sensual writing may leave you short of breath: Waiting for April contains what must be the sexiest haircut in literature.
He is terribly funny too, and sly. “They would put on a Thelonious Monk album, the insider’s choice for those who believed Charlie Parker had become too popular . . .” An old coot on the highway selects “the choice middle lane visible only to drunks and the elderly.” Often he is funny-sad, as in, “Doctor said I’d be retarded . . . [b]ut turns out I’m just borderline dumb-ass.”
This novel has some politics, for Morris is a political as well as a literary man, and he is attuned to the gradations of both the Republican and the Democratic parties. One of his characters is a congressman. The author himself has a streak of agrarianism in him — of John Crowe Ransom, of Wendell Berry (to bring it up to date) — or maybe more than a streak.
At virtually every turn, the reader may well find himself nodding and saying, “Yes, that’s true. That’s what people do. That’s what life is like.” Morris sees things that we’ve all observed but have not quite registered, or have quickly forgotten; certainly we have not written them down or woven them into a complicated but fast-paced novel. “I couldn’t look at her when she said these things, and for that reason I suppose she believed she had to keep saying them.” His sympathy for human beings is enormous, and at times heartbreaking. Here is a country mother seeing her boy off to the Vietnam War:
She’d worn the nicest dress she had and she even put on a little rouge and lipstick. And she’d worn heels. I remember her tottering and feeling sorry for her because what was happening was killing her and she was having to endure it standing there fighting for balance in those damned heels that she didn’t know how to wear. . . . It must have been a hundred degrees with the sun beating down on them, no privacy, right there off the square . . . When I think of that poor woman standing there in those heels watching her son get on that bus . . .
These days — and probably always — a novel has to be “about” something, not just an occasion for a ripping story unfolded in marvelous English. And Waiting for April is, indeed, “about” something, or several things: chiefly the importance of DNA (to put it far more crudely than Morris would), the circumstances into which one is born, blood and soil, the past, how to escape it, whether to. Fitzgerald’s “boats against the current” are there, often not really wanting to resist the current at all, happy to be borne ceaselessly back, nervous of the future and of the outside. This is a book that worms into the brain. You may linger in it for days after you’ve finished it.
Scott M. Morris was born in 1966, same as Roy Collier (not to suggest further parallels!). He is a “fifth-generation Floridian,” as he says, and now lives in Oxford, Mississippi, where he teaches at the university. In the mid ’90s, he worked at The Weekly Standard magazine in Washington — at the desk next to mine, actually. It was obvious that his gifts were huge, and that he should and would transcend the world of grubby journalism. I’d tease him that, deep and erudite as he was, he’d pretend that he was “just some boy out of the orange groves.” He’d laugh, denying nothing.
A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, properly smitten, said, “Scott Morris has a long and happy life ahead.” I should say. In the novel, Roy’s mother tells her son, “You have to learn to be perceptive . . . Don’t just blunder through life.” This author is not. He has just produced a novel that will last. And if it doesn’t, that will be the public’s fault, not his.