Yes, that’s right. Herewith I set off on my quest to ride Ned Hayes’s coattails to fame and fortune.
It is fascinating, because instead of sticking to the "straight" family dramas that fill many of his other books like Return to Freedom and Reunion at the Wetside, Clayton adds the perspective of David Lawrence, and erstwhile film star who is back in the bayou country for a season. His experience outside of Mississippi is a telling contrast, and also an aspirational world that many strive for there.
David's life and family history in the country is the backdrop for a story of family ties that strain to breaking, small town corruption, racial tensions that are (pretty overtly) expressed, and a variety of clever observations about the culture and families of the Mississippi bayou country. In the end, I felt like I'd spent a season myself in that humid territory.
The story itself reminds me of a classic "This American Life" episode, where another movie star -- a real one -- comes to a small town and interesting things happen. The small town where this actor went in real life is nowhere near as interesting as Clayton's imaginary one, but the stories seem complementary. Here's a link to the This American Life episode #173: Three Kinds of Deception.\
Clayton adroitly portrays the inner thoughts of central characters Bitsey and Malcolm, and I especially liked his treatment of the poor yet wise middle-aged mother Bitsey. It's not easy for a male author to pull off a female character with this level of insight, and I credit Clayton's long marriage for giving him some of this insight.
The treatment of Malcolm is equally satisfying, although I found the way Justin (their son) dies to be less dramatic than it should have been: in fact, I almost missed the death, and had to go back to find it. In the end, this death reverberates in interesting ways through the novel, and only the initial moment threw me.
Clayton's treatment of Sonny Staples and Beulah Booker Taylor is a little less satisfying for me, especially since Beulah's orientation and her struggle with it is obvious to the reader far before Beulah herself owns up.
However, Clayton wraps up the complicated threads of the various stories with a sure hand. Clayton has mastered the task of getting inside his characters' heads: "Return to Freedom" could use a bit more plot momentum, and structural editing to hone the tale to a tighter storyline, but overall it is a very satisfying read.
Grounded in Clayton's familiar world of Freedom, Mississippi, Clayton's latest novel sparkles with finely observed insight, sharp wit and complicated relationships.
Clayton has a gift for writing funny scenes, interesting quirky characters and realistic dialogue. I enjoyed this book quite a bit.