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"I was raised like a mountain squeezed into the sky by compression. All that was not rock hard slowly eroded to be replaced by newly shattered parts, the erosion and rising occuring simultaneously."

There is not a satisfying end to this story. The girl goes home with a cloud of guilt and confusion surrounding her. There is less of hope in it than determination to survive, and the fingerpointing which was avoided through the whole narrative begins to surface, but only briefly.

Regardless of its disappointing finish, getting to the end of this book was easy, and the final impression is one of admiration for any and all of us who can take the worst life can hand out, shake it off, and get back up.

David Childers is a singer, songwriter, poet and attorney.

The School of Beauty and Charm by Melanie Sumner (Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 308 pages, $23.95)


Crazy as Batsh*t
By Lucy Perkins

Beauty and charm it ain't got. Humor, yes. A wacked-out plot, yes. A crazy-as-hell protagonist, definitely. But beauty and charm ­nope.

In fact the only thing that might lead one to associate the words beauty and charm with Melanie Sumner's novel is its title, which I'm sure operates strictly on an ironic basis, although I suspect a deeper message lurks somewhere beneath the close-to-random plot.

Unfortunately, that message is a little hard to read, although thankfully the text of the novel is not. Actually, The School of Beauty and Charm is a rather fun read and easily holds your attention. (Note: don't allow your attention to become mired down in trying to find a point to the novel, though. That a point The characters are the most fun. Louise, the guilt-wracked, identity-seeking protagonist, is clearly supposed to be the main attraction. As though Louise isn't already on the road to insanity at the beginning of the novel with her gregarious mother and stern father, her brother dies early on in a freak accident that Louise believes is her fault.

Louise, though, is quickly upstaged by her outgoing mother, Florida. Florida gives the book whatever personality it has via her own vibrancy. She simultaneously loves and terrorizes her daughter. (And how many of us can attest to moms who manage that feat?) Her make-up is impeccable and she has a little dog named Puff Leblanc (at least until it gets eaten by an owl). Florida, at the very least, is interesting.

Sumner goes out of her way to introduce us to even more outrageous and bizarre characters. First you have the psychiatrist who runs away with his receptionist and a big-talking redneck who Louise idolizes. Then, just to mix things up, there's a fire-eating circus freak, a three-legged woman and a black homosexual doctor turned circus clown; and those are just some of the weirdos Louise meets while working for a circus. Yet none of them really reaches the depth of interest enjoyed by Louise's mother. Florida, who reminds her daughter to wear make-up and fix her hair, even during her incarceration, is not unbelievably crazy like some of the other characters, she's just crazy crazy, like the guy who lives down the block from your house. Her completely flawed nature combined with her real love for her daughter is hard to reject.

Part of the problem here is that Louise, ostensibly the main character, never really inspires the same interest as Florida. During the course of the novel, Louise gains and loses weight, believes she murdered her brother and runs away to join the circus, and even so, there is little in her character to inspire a reader's affection.

It may seem a bit twisted to say so, but given the long history of crazy people in Southern literature, Sumner's psychotics, even in all their weirdness, often seem more trite than wacky. In The School of Beauty and Charm, I detect moments of Conroy's The Prince of Tides and even longer glimpses of Flannery O'Connor's grotesque mind. In other words, Louise lacks a craziness that is uniquely hers.

Unfortunately, the wacked out characters aren't tempered by a highly effective plot. The story seems not only unfocused but, worse, pointless, as though the author just wanted to fit in a bunch of clever bits she'd thought up over time. The preface is a paragraph that apparently sets the rest of the book up as a testimonial at an AA meeting (that's my inference). But a reading of the rest of the novel will make you wonder about this perspective. After all, Louise narrates most of the book, but for some reason chapter 14, the next to last chapter, abruptly switches away from her point of view. It's the kind of thing that makes you think there's a reason for it, but then there isn't one.


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