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Cavedweller by Dorothy Allison
Note: This guide is meant for an adult audience.
The Village Voice has called her "a hell of a writer tough and loose, clear and compassionate." George Garrett, author and critic who reviewed Bastard Out of Carolina for The New York Times Book Review wanted to "blow a bugle to alert the reading public that a major new talent has arrived." Critics have likened her to William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Harper Lee, naming her the first writer of her generation to dramatize the lives and language of poor whites in the South. "She has an all-encompassing knowledge of what it's like to be the other, the outsider," says Studs Terkel. Garrett agrees: "It's as if the people in Dorothea Lange photographs, in the work of Margaret Bourke-White and Walker Evans, were able to speak." But with a dead-center look that says "Don't mess with me, honey. I'm liable to pour gravy on you," Allison defies easy characterization, as one writer for the New York Times put it. And she likes it that way.
Part gospel singer, part country preacher, Allison often jokes that as a girl she wanted to be Janis Joplin. She has a wardrobe full of rhinestone-studded leather jackets and a desk drawer full of family snapshots. She's a mean shot with a rifle, and her language is always dead-on: lush, beautiful, and brutal. "Dorothy sees everything", says Jewelle Gomez, the poet and novelist.
Allison has spent her entire life telling forbidden stories, pulling her best fiction out from the edge of terror and the courage to heal. In Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, a short memoir she published in 1995, Allison writes,
Where I was born Greenville, South Carolina smelled like nowhere else I've been. Cut wet grass, split green apples, baby shit and beer bottles, cheap makeup and motor oil. Everything was ripe, everything was rotting. Hound dogs butted my calves. People shouted in the distance; crickets boomed in my ears. That country was beautiful, I swear to you, the most beautiful place I've ever been. Beautiful and terrible.
Allison wants the hard and terrible stories, she demands them from herself. And her readers wait for them.
Readers might call Cavedweller the blazing daughter of Bastard Out of Carolina, but even that will not do justice to the mystical story and landscape, the world of family, and the secret-filled South in which Allison has set in her new novel. Allison begins her absorbing saga about Delia Byrd and her three daughters with a simple sentence: "Death changes everything," and by story's end, Allison has uncovered the complicated cycles of sinning and atonement along an enormous expanse of births, deaths, and rebirths alongside husbands, lovers, families, friends. Young, beautiful Delia flees a whisky-soaked, violent man who loves her passionately and beats her within an inch of her life. On a dusty sideroad she meets Randall, a musician on his way to the top, and deserts her two baby daughters in Cayro, Georgia, land of biscuit franchises and backwoods Baptists. Randall and Delia form the band Mud Dog, and together they write music, hit the road, and have a child, Cissy. But even while pasting together a life of soul, drugs, truck stops, vodka shots, and credit card bills in the glitter of Los Angeles, Delia doesn't care about fame or money and cannot live with the fact that she left her two girls behind. When a motorcycle accident kills Randall, Delia quits the bottle and takes Cissy on a midnight drive-through mission back to reclaim her life (and reconnect with her original sin) in Georgia, where folks remember her as "that bitch [who] ran off and left her babies."
Delia fights off the urge to drink as she suffers the scorn of her family and a bitter community who despises her for what she did and who she became. She moves back in with Clint Windsor, her cancer-stricken husband, and offers to care for him on his deathbed if he will allow her to reclaim her two daughters, Amanda, 15, and Dede, 12, from their Bible-thumping grandmother. Evangelical Amanda takes after her grandma Windsor, and pursues the Lord and anti-abortion activism with the manic fervor of a zealot. Wild and slim Dede is every man's dream, redneck or not. Though not into Jesus, she is as passionate as her sister Amanda, and dreams of getting behind the wheel of a big truck and heading down the road, any road, out of Georgia. Finally, there's tough yet vulnerable Cissy, who finds her obsession in the dank sport of caving, where she finds strength to grab her future as she scrapes through the caves of Southern Georgia, through Paula's Lost and Little Mouth. All three girls are something to behold as they grow up into enraged yet empowered women. It is Delia, though, who is the real "cavedweller" a woman whose deep past is gradually mapped and explored, and who is able to remake herself and her family through what she discovers. Led by the example of their determined mother, each daughter opens her heart a little wider to others and finds her own way in the world.
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