Heavenly Days by James Wilcox
Rating: •• (Mildly Recommended)
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James Wilcox’s latest novel, Heavenly Days, takes readers back to Tula Springs, Louisiana, the setting for many of his novels over the past twenty years. The characters are engaging, the plot often funny, and dialogue is choice Southern charming fare. A novel isn’t necessarily the sum of those parts, and Heavenly Days lacks a cohesion that leaves a reader asking at the end, “Is that all?” On the other hand, Wilcox makes the short trip a pleasure, and hits on religious tolerance and racism in a way that engages readers. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 21 (pp. 136-139):
Because the parish hall at Frederik Memorial is leaking—a yellow-pine limb crashed through the roof during the ice storm that paralyzed Tula Springs on Wednesday—the parish staff meeting is being held at Grady Morgen's. Lou, whose pen has run out of ink, can't help admiring her friend this evening. A twenty-year-old Chanel original gives Grady a severe elegance that makes Sting Courtney, the vivacious president of the Junior League, seem positively gaudy. As the butler glides into the room, Lou overhears Mary Ellen Shavers say something to Rowena Cobb about his sandals.
"Pipe down, Cobb," Grady says as Lou begins to read the minutes of the last meeting. Lou blushes for her friend's rudeness, but the provost herself seems unfazed. Lou speeds up as yawns blossom among the men. When it's over, she doesn't even note if the minutes are approved or not. She's lost in admiration. Never have the ceilings seemed so high, the ivy-leaf molding more splendid in its restraint. The lamps on the hunt table—she's never really noticed them before. They aren't things one could ever buy. You're either born with them or do without. Lou follows Sting Courtney's gaze as it wanders to the portrait of Judge Morgen's great-grandfather, painted by Joshua Reynolds's niece. Poor Sting—whenever Lou's been to her house for an Arts Council meeting, she's served shrimp fat as lobsters, fresh crab, baby asparagus, and, two or three times, caviar. She still hasn't worked up the nerve to imitate Grady's plain watercress sandwiches. With the crust left on.
When it's all over—a committee has been formed to look into a bazaar for the roof—Lou heads for the kitchen to retrieve the golf trophy she's sharing with Grady. Grady has had it an awfully long time, it seems.
"Dr. Jones," Rowena Cobb says as Lou totters in her cruel alligator heels atop a stool. She's reaching for the trophy, which is a hell of a way up on the shelves.
"Hey, Dr. Cobb."
"Good news. Crosby found a mortgage on the Web."
"You're kidding!" With the trophy jammed against her side, Lou is steadied by the provost's hand as she descends. "Oh, I know you're going to love it, Rowena. Brougham Gardens is really so convenient. Just look out the kitchen window and you can see what's playing, the feature times, everything. Then walk right over with your own popcorn. You'll save a fortune right there. And of course, the house itself, well, Don's really made it so original, the layout. You can pretend you're in SoHo."
"Crosbys not wild about the SoHo angle, that loft space. He's going to put in some walls downstairs. Make an actual dining room, living room, and close off the kitchen. Then he wants to tear out that sofa, all the built-in stuff you got there."
Lou blinks. "Yes, traditional rooms can be wonderful, too, in their own way. You can pretend you're in . . . New Canaan."
"A suburb of— Oh, this? Just the trophy I won in that . . ."
"We won," Grady says as she breezes in with crystal stemware dangling from each hand.
"I meant we," Lou mutters lamely. Must Grady correct her in front of the woman who could hire her, Lou, at any moment? Especially after Rowena had just fired the head of the music department.
"Almost eight?" The provost frowns at her Rolex. "I told Crosby I'd be home bv seven. But Grady, you just tell me if there’s anything I can do to help clean up even though poor Crosby must be starving by now and . . ."
"These glasses." Grady sets the crystal in the sink and turns on the tap. "Don't use too much hot water, either. I got to take a bath.
Lou, help me get rid of the watercress. Take some home with you."
"No, really, I couldn't..."
Grady herds Lou into the drawing room, where Bill is using a broom to deal with crumbs on the threadbare carpet from Arbuthnot Hall in Chipping Mare. The vacuum is too old and cumbersome for most jobs. It takes more effort to put it together than to actually vacuum.
"I heard, Lou."
"Fine. So shoot me."
"How much? What's the offer?"
Last week Lou had admitted to Grady what Rowena and Crosby Cobb were willing to pay for the Brougham Gardens house. It's too little, practically giving it away. But as Lou explained to Grady more than once, she and Don simply can't afford to go on dipping into their nest egg for the mortgage. No use throwing good money after bad.
"You got Cobb up, Lou? Something in the ballpark of vague sanity?"
"None of your business."
"And where do you and Don plan to move?"
"We'll find something, a nice, tidy little cottage. Really, Grady, I'm so sick of Brougham. It's far too big. My heels actually echo when I walk around in it. And we never use the pool. That potter costs a fortune to pluck a few leaves out and— Stop, Grady. Please don't." Grady goes on stuffing finger food into the trophy's cup.
"Don doesn't like watercress."
"Don't be silly, Lou. He'll like it. And you got to take some ostrich, too."
"What? The egg?"
"No, I made that skinflint husband of hers give me an actual chick—hatched."
"Please don't tell me you've already butchered the poor thing. Oh, Grady . . ."
"Hardly. It's running around outside, having the time of its life. Cobb . . ." Grady nods toward the kitchen, where the water seems to be running full blast. "She brought ten pounds with her tonight. I wish she'd stop with the ostrich. Every time I turn around, she's pawning it off on me. Makes me ill, that meat."
Lou sighs. "Well, I suppose it'll be good for Don, his heart. Where is it? I want to get going. Got to get up at four-thirty tomorrow to do my bassoon column."
"Toolshed. Carla's out there now."
For a few chuckles, and a short trip down South, pick up Heavenly Days and become charmed.
Steve Hopkins, November 24, 2003
ă 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the December 2003 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Heavenly Days.htm
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