Though I have come late to the fiction of Elizabeth Spencer (born in Carrollton, Mississippi in 1921), I am making up for my belatedness with lots of enthusiasm. She remains best known for a novella about a Southern (US) mother and daughter in Italy, The Light in the Piazza (1960), which was the basis for a movie (with Olivia de Haviland and Yvette Mimeux as the American Southerners) and, more recently, an opera. Her considerably more ambitious The Voice at the Back Door set in a South early in the challenges to segregation was selected by the judges for a Pulitzer Prize and overruled by the 1957 prize committee, which for unspecified reasons rejected the recommendation and made no award.
Her 1984 novel, The Salt Line, is set in a small town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast after the devastation of Hurricane Camille in 1969. (It was considered a “hundred-year storm” until Katrina arrived rather ahead of schedule as the next one in 2005.) I’d say that the novel is about more than survival(/persistence), less than redemption.
The major character, who seems to me too reactive to qualify as a “protagonist,” is Arnold Carrington, who was a tenured professor of English at a Mississippi university, specializing in the life (rather than the writing) of Lord Byron. He published a well-reviewed book on Byron’s friends, and had an advance for one on Byron’s last year engaged in the Greek struggle against the Ottomans.
Arnie was something of a troublemaker, enjoying the esteem of dissident students as he championed desegregation and challenged the US involvement in the Vietnam (“basking in his press notices” and inordinately concerned with being thought well of by students in the hostile view of some colleagues who never attracted much notice from either students or the press). He was driven to give up his tenured position in part from the machinations of his supposed friend, Lex Graham, a younger profession (specializing in Alexander Pope and his generation) and settle in (the fictional town between Biloxi and Gulfport) Notchaki, MS.
Besides stirring up the old guard, Arnie had an affair with Lex’s previously unsatisfied wife, Evelyn, so the “great friendship” of the two couples was more complicated than it may have appeared to others, including Arnie’s wife, who died of cancer after leaving the college town.
There was an occasion on which Arnie climbed a water tower and Lex aimed but did not fire his pistol at the man who had cuckolded him. I have to say that this is for me a false note: Arnie does not know it happened and I’d think that a rifle would have been more plausible than a pistol.
Be that as it may, Arnie is endeavoring to resurrect something of the charm of the gulf-fronting, devastated town, when the Grahams pop in to look at a mansion that has survived (Lex has inherited a sizeable sum). The former “campus radical” (by Mississippi standards at least!) has settled in to historic preservation, wanting tasteful redevelopment rather than strip malls and a miniature golf course with a dinosaur theme). “He hates to see the old styles and the old ways vanish from himself and the coast,” as Spencer explained in an interview.
Arnie does not want to resume any friendship with the Grahams, but needs capital for his reclamation schemes and takes Lex out to an island that he owns.
Lex is delighted at the opportunity to refuse to help Arnie, but let’s say his joy is short-circuited. Through no fault of Arnie, Graham loses his wife once and for all and believes Arnie has also seduced his daughter.
Arnie is far more interested in Mavis Henley than in either of the Graham women. She is, however, in love with Frank Matteo, who owns a thriving restaurant and is rumored to be a Mafia boss. Mavis is pregnant by Frank, who remains married to a woman in Philadelphia for whom he has long ceased to have any feelings. Frank wants to buy the island Arnie owns, ostensibly as a fishing lodge, but Arnie is convinced as part of smuggling operations.
Then there are the “Oriental” ducks clustered around a larger-than-life Buddha who was washed up on Frank’s yard by the hurricane (Mavis dotes on both the ducks and the Buddha, whom like Frank she considers a “god”). There are also some thuggish sort-of hippies who annoy both Arnie and Frank (one of them is a nephew of Frank’s, which limits his options for violent action). And I quite like the portrayal of Arnie’s renegade (to Houston) son and their arc of rapprochement.
Most of Spencer’s stories and novellas focus on women, but as in A Voice at the Back Door, the major characters/antagonists of The Salt Line are male – and convincingly male in my estimation. Though more character-driven than plot-driven, both have substantial plots (with some violence included). And both convey particular Southern atmospheres (social and cultural as well as geographic and climatic). Having read Spencer’s 1968 collection of stories Ship Island and Other Stories, I already had a good idea of what she values of the Gulf Coast and her long familiarity with its ways and inhabitants. I think that having read that enhanced my appreciation of the novel (that was published earlier than the story collection, obviously).
I think the novel could have been pruned just a bit, and some have found its succession of flashbacks disorienting (I didn’t). For me, Spencer is with Mary Lee Settle and Joan Silber, one of the great and underpublicized treasures of American letters (though all three have won some awards).
(On making it through the later major hurricane (Katrina) see my reviews of Zeitoun and Katrina Wedding.)