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Mistakes Were Made

Goldman gleans insights from family tragedy

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From the very first page, you know what's coming -- a murder -- but that's all you know. The how and critical why hide in novelist Judy Goldman's lively imagination. Murder's not supposed to happen to people like these. People like you or your best neighbor.

Goldman, in this second novel, traces what I would call "the education of Kathryne Smallwood," a smart, liberal Myers Park wife and mother who learns what no young woman, what no parent, wants to learn about her child. That he has done something terrible. Inexplicable. Life-changingly tragic. Goldman skillfully shows, by unearthing one tiny detail after another from the interwoven past, how close we are to disaster, in fact, "only a hair away." And how one woman, Kathryne, sees life unravel around her small family.

We pierce the inner workings of this family from the day their only child, Early, was born in 1969. Early is the fond, ironic nickname for infant Earl David Smallwood, who took 36 hard labor hours in coming, quite late. The drama lies in how her son seems to lose his normal life disgracefully at 18, and how Kathryne, his doting mother who tried to do everything right, comes to see the lives of her "perfect family" in a new light.

In the end, this is a hopeful story -- a highly polished novel that is both sad and uplifting, remarkably introspective, personal yet universal. Because of its scope within the losses and discoveries of relationships, it will interest readers as far away as Oregon or Maine, although it is set solidly in Charlotte, and uses the terrain to fine advantage.

Kathryne Smallwood's world in the late 1980s is the small, wooded confines of affluence and beauty, where she buys birdseed at Myers Park Hardware, but later drives out Providence Road on a suspicious "other-woman" quest. While her son is in jail instead of his freshman year at college, she avoids the students on the shady Queens campus who are using their backpacks for springtime pillows on the grass. As a child, before being placed in private school, Early spent a brief, troubled time in the quandary of a well-known Charlotte "open school" housed in a former high school in uptown Charlotte. Early in her marriage, Kathryne and Peter shared a one-room apartment across from Billy Graham's birthplace on Park Road. Goldman knows Charlotte of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s and uses her knowledge well.

Goldman also tackles the thorny paradox of a liberal, open-minded activist who is accused of racism during this raw-wound period of civil rights discomfort. Kathryne is stunned that she could be so perceived.

Kathryne's marriage and the character of her husband, Peter, are vividly drawn. An attorney in uptown Charlotte, he drives a silver Volvo, snips and trains bonsai for a hobby, suffers high blood pressure and the effects of an acute absence of love and intimacy in childhood.

Kathryne is a guilty innocent with a talent for erasure, for sweeping problems under her own rug. Her son Early is her blind spot. Husband Peter, haunted by perfection, pushes his son mercilessly: "With your mind, you should be number one." Peter "looks like one of those men who are already seated in first class when you're passing through the plane to coach, the way they're so settled in, comfortable...entitled." Early is endearing, nave, very bright, and loyal to his best friend, who fatefully has no such loyalty to Early.

This exceptional novel is Goldman's strongest, most ambitious work, a story of dawning wisdom. She continues to exhibit a poetic gift for metaphor and simile with each new work. Vulnerable Kathryne, visiting the prison, feels "the sun is a bulldog." She exists in "this termite hill of numbness." If, you've been listening to the troubles of friends, you know this vulnerable person, whose situation amid divorce, grief, or public humiliation, makes her move and feel "like a stroke victim."

I question the absolute clarity that comes to the mother, Kathryne, the narrator. This clear vision and hope for the future lift the book beyond the deadly consequences of a teenage prank on high school graduation night. But life, as I observe it, rarely unveils the answers so well and with such maturity as in this story's conclusion even with the help of a wise friend. The water can stay murky for years. But for Kathryne, whom we come to care about intensely, the promising last chapter is solid, "an iron railing" to hold onto, exactly right and earned.

Goldman based her story on a sudden, inexplicable tragedy that happened to a youth she knew. Early Leaving, besides being a riveting read, hammers over and over a warning for parents and for anyone who too quickly points a finger in judgment. We were, Kathryne says, "two decent people who made mistakes." As I said, we know these people.

Mary Kratt is a Charlotte author. Judy Goldman will read from Early Leaving at Creative Loafing Carolina Writers Night, Tuesday, October 26, at 7pm at Neighborhood Theatre.

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