“The Lost Saints of Tennessee”
By Amy Franklin-Willis
Atlantic Monthly Press, 352 pages, $25
By Gina Webb
At the beginning of Amy Franklin-Willis’ first novel, suicide looks like the only option for Ezekiel “Zeke” Cooper, its 42-year-old hero. The death of his twin brother 10 years ago has torpedoed Zeke’s marriage to his high school sweetheart. He’s not sure his two daughters would miss him if he were gone. There’s no future in his dead-end job. He still lives in the town he was born in, but it’s hardly a life anymore.
“Somewhere between Sunday’s end-of-the-weekend drinks and the early hours of Monday, the notion of suicide floated past my mind for the first time in forty-two years of living. Sobriety did not make it disappear. My daily choices have evolved from whether to have chili or a Swanson’s Hungry Man dinner to kicking around suicide methods.”
Zeke finally decides that a drug overdose, preferably one that takes place out of town, is the best option — “If it was good enough for Elvis, it’s good enough for me” — and leaves home for the first time since his honeymoon, determined to end it all at a motel outside Nashville.
But when things don’t go as planned, he finds himself embarking on a different journey — to his elderly cousins’ farm in Virginia — once Zeke’s home away from home, a place where he gradually confronts the reasons his world has fallen apart. His story opens with events from 1948, when a measles epidemic left his brother brain-damaged, and reaches its climax in 1960, the year Zeke’s mother made a decision that would forever change both her sons’ lives and her own.
Ambitious, beautiful and charismatic, Lillian’s “fierce presence” guided and protected her five children without much help from their father, whose work kept him away from home. Her plans for Zeke ensured that the son she called “a shining star” would never end up like her — stuck in rural Clayton, Tenn., without a future.
Out of love for her, Zeke obeyed. “Most people seem to follow a road map for their life — do this and you’ll be here. Do that and you’ll live happily ever after, ” he says. But what happens when you follow someone else’s map? That’s what Zeke finds out in this honest and often humorous look at a Southern family’s ambitions and sacrifices, in which a son must understand the language of his mother’s heart — and his own — before he can learn to forgive.
Though his ruefully funny voice carries the novel, Lillian takes over for a brief but powerful middle section that recalls her childhood dreams, cut short by a teenage pregnancy, and a secret love affair that ended in a tragedy she was never able to explain to her children, Zeke included.
Recently diagnosed with lung cancer, she has decided to “be truthful these days, at least with myself and God, ” and her no-nonsense perspective painfully illuminates the weight of her responsibilities and sacrifices, describing the frustration, resentment and weariness only a woman caring for too many kids without help can feel. By setting Lillian’s early years in the 1930s, the author — born and raised in Birmingham — takes advantage of a time and a place when women had few options, learning early on to relinquish cherished dreams.
As the title suggests, there are many lost saints in Clayton, and, like Lillian’s, their martyrdom began with forfeiting a more fulfilling life to stick around for someone else’s sake. Try to break out of the pattern and you risk losing your halo: Zeke’s efforts to start over in Virginia rock his established relationships with his ex-wife and especially his two teenage daughters.
Zeke’s brother, Carter, was once a saintly child who looked “normal and most of the time acted normally, ” but whose differences become more pronounced as time goes by. In a small town where “different” can be dangerous, the question of whose job it is to look after Carter is the one that will leave Lillian facing the most anguished decision of her life.
Anyone who’s ever left home and regretted it — or, for that matter, stayed home and regretted it — will find much here to savor, as will those whose family ties consist of the kind of cracked emotional currency Zeke and Lillian have exchanged most of their lives. Franklin-Willis tackles the relationships between her characters without resorting to sentimentality; the Coopers are no Lifetime TV family. Their interactions are more often brusque, impatient, angry, down-to-earth, sorrowful — they’re a loving but realistic bunch, their attempts to reach each other crusted over with failure. But they don’t give up.
What most embodies this spirit, and anchors this vivid, faithfully drawn family history, is Lillian and Zeke’s 25-year-old estrangement, on one side sadly accepting, on the other, fiercely judgmental — both ready to set the record straight. As Lillian puts it: “If someone wants to listen, fine. If not, doesn’t bother me. All I need do is tell.” Though the reader is left to evaluate whose side is more sympathetic, it’s clear that only the two together can make up a whole, one that offers hope — and maybe just a little bit of sainthood after all.