There’s an iron fist inside the velvet glove that is Amy Franklin-Willis’ new novel, The Lost Saints of Tennessee, a story that, though it strays into sentimentality now and again, nevertheless depicts the small everyday challenges, successes and failures that define most lives with both empathy and unblinking realism.
Ezekiel Cooper, 40, divorced, owner of much unfulfilled potential as a scholarship winner who dropped out of college to help care for his mentally disabled twin brother Carter, is contemplating suicide when we meet him. Since he narrates of most of the book, it’s unsurprising that he can’t quite finish the job. His drive towards self destruction is only partially motivated by his grief, undiminished despite the ten years between the text’s present, 1985, and Carter’s death. Zeke, as he is known to everyone, is drowning in his own mediocrity and squandered opportunities, and the heavy stone of his lost twin is just one of the many weights dragging him down.
Franklin-Willis writes Zeke with impressive frankness and willingness to embrace the true-but-difficult-to-reconcile-in-fiction fact that there are rarely perfect explanations for why people do the things they do. If Zeke were the only focus of the story, the book would be shorter, lighter and less interesting. But Franklin-Willis explores three generations of Coopers in an attempt to show not just a slice of life, but the whole pie.
Franklin-Willis’ apparent belief that an alternative voice needs to be heard in order for the Coopers to be fully understood explains why Zeke’s mother Lillian narrates a section of the text, though it doesn’t mitigate the jarring nature of this shift in point of view. A strong woman, it is unsurprising that she should take over the novel for a time. She tells the wrenching tale her teenage pregnancy and motherhood, a life for which she did not plan and which slowly drains her of her native vitality, as well as robbing her of the opportunity to develop her impressive singing talent. Giving birth to and caring for not just twins, but three other children in the rural South breaks and remolds Lillian, and her voice as she recounts her life is the voice of many women who want to ask if it is right or fair that they should lose who they are and what they desire for themselves when they have children. The text wisely offers no answer, and Lillian’s anguish over trying to reclaim an identity of her own conveys the sense that her history, while not quite a nightmare from which is trying to wake, is representative of a lot of young women. She’s a Shakespeare’s sister who doesn’t end up dead and does what she can to make the best life she can for herself, but along the way she makes plenty of mistakes — as does everyone in the book. Spouses get cheated on, children get hurt and don’t get better. Death comes too early, and sometimes too late. In no place and at no time, the text is saying, can you find unsullied peace. Even the Edenic Virginia farm of Zeke’s wealthy elderly cousins, Georgia and Osbourne Lacey, where Zeke recuperates from his descent into the abyss, is visited by both literal and figurative stormy weather. This idyllic place is shadowed by the slow-motion horror of Osbourne’s advancing Alzheimer’s Disease
By the time we get to what’s going on with Zeke’s fifteen-year-old daughter Honora, we might feel that Franklin-Willis is laying the tragedy on a bit thick. But therein lies the delicate balancing act the book has set up for itself. Lost Saints aims to be an accurate depiction of real life, and real life never stops dishing out both the good and the bad. Fiction, on the other hand, can do whatever it wants. The desired effect here seems to be to show that no matter who you are or where you go, you cannot escape the unpredictable and constant sharp turns of fortune life doles out. People get sick, they die, they find love and lose it and find it again in the same place and in unexpected places at the same time, and the timing is never quite right, because the definition of ‘quite right’ depends upon each individual’s emotional and psychological state, a thing for which real life couldn’t care less.
Zeke’s coming to consciousness of these immutable conditions is as close as the book comes to a point. His rise from suicidal loser to more mature man trying to navigate the treacherous jungle of caring for himself and sacrificing for his loved ones, a trip that is by no means finished just because the novel ends, strikes an authentic note, as does Franklin-Willis conception of family dynamics, with all their shifting loyalties, pettiness, and moments of selfless grace. “You laugh until you cry/You cry until you laugh/And everyone must breath/Until their dying breath” goes a line from an old Regina Spektor song, and there is no more apt summation than this of The Lost Saints of Tennessee.