I am back in my hometown, Hannibal, Missouri. Not physically, but in the pages of FLOOD, the captivating debut novel by another Hannibal homie, Melissa Scholes Young. The novel was published in June by Center Street, a division of Hachette.
FLOOD is set in Hannibal ten years after the cataclysmic Mississippi river flood of 1993, which threatened Mark Twain's town with submersion and inundated 320,000 square miles of the Midwest, nearly a twelfth of the nation's terrain.
But meteorology is hardly Scholes Young's concern here; nor, really, is Mark Twain, despite his constant resonating presence at the edges of the story. (The author interesperses her narrative with pertinent allusions to Twain and excerpts from his works.) Scholes Young's pursuit is classic and eternal: "the human heart in conflict with itself," in William Faulkner's mighty phrase. In Scholes Young's hands, the conflict is waged with fierce consummate compassion and, finally, apocalyptic and enigmatic grace.
Laura Brooks, the novel's narrator, has retreated back to Hannibal after a failed ten-year sojourn in Florida. She'd lit out from the threatened town, her down-and-out roots, and her suitor Sammy McGuire at age of 18 in hopes of gaining control of her destiny as the floodwaters lapped. A lost job, a lost pregnancy, and lost dreams shoo her back home.
She returns under similarly darkening skies to face her resentful Mama, amidst her chickens in the family trailer near the river. ("Mama stands inside their pen with a basket of fresh eggs. She couldn't be prouder if she'd laid them herself." Mama, wary that her daughter has gone all "fancy" as a hifalutin nurse's assistant in Florida, is slow to return her daughter's affection: "Take those shitkickers off in the house," and: "Unless that smart degree made you forget where you're from.")
Laura edgily eases herself back into the tattered old town still licking its wounds from Twain's glorifying legacy. It is part of Scholes Young's gift to construct a Hannibal at once mythic and prosaic: mythic in its helpless symbiosis with Mark Twain; prosaic in the dreary particulars of its present plight.
There she encounters her old life sweeping before her like a panorama: her adrift biker-brother, Trey; her desperate fading beauty of a best friend, Rose; Rose's ardent young son, Bobby; Rose's boozing husband Josh--and, inevitably, Sammy himself; gentle, fatally mis-construed Sammy, eddying up behind her as she sits alone beside the Mississippi one night, stretching her arm into the frigid water. ("For a second I consider just sinking into the water and letting the current carry me. But knowing him, he'd jump in, even if he thought I was a stranger.")
It is exactly this concision, this remarkable capacity of Scholes to couch decisive moments in prosewriting shorn of affect, that compels the reader to follow along in Laura Brooks's deceptively gentle wake. We collaborate in the contours of Laura's fateful return and the fraught moral decisions her return imposes on her, instead of merely absorb them. We're avid to help fashion what the late John Gardner called "the vivid and continuous dream."
This voice holds as steady as a levee through the novel's rising arc of dead-ended hope, birth and sundering, the bitter pizza-and-doughnuts pleasures and furies of the smalltown dispossessed.
At the novel's conclusion, Scholes Young's control increases the impact of abrupt plot reversal. Egged on by Huck's whispered voice in her ear--"All right, then, I'll go to hell!" she performs an act startling in its departure from our expectations. Is it an act of violation or of redemption? The reader must decide. In the act of deciding, the reader is compeled to complete the novel's vivid and continuous dream.
FLOOD, being the provenance of a Hannibal writer, already and tiresomely has been placed in the lineage of Mark Twain. This is fair neither to Scholes Young nor to the father of modern fiction. Her debut book makes a few graceful curtsies to Sam, yet it stands on its own, sui generis.