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Plumbing The Depths

Old friends sail toward arrival

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If you went to a women's college or ever lived in a girls' dorm, you know part of this story. But not the best part.

The best part is author Lee Smith herself, and her new book is her most delicious novel yet. In The Last Girls, Smith is even more daring than usual, more colorful, hilarious, sexy, and knowing. All writers borrow from life: their own, their neighbors', or those of strangers who innocently sit down beside them to chat. For this book, Smith uses an event in her own college days at Hollins College in 1966, when she and 15 college friends provisioned a raft and hired a retired riverboat pilot for a trip down the Mississippi. Seems they were inspired by a favorite English professor's stirring assignment and interpretation of Mark Twain's own fictionalized river adventures.

In a recent interview, Smith recalls being buttonholed at a southern literary festival by a tipsy book-club member who demanded, "Why don't you write about us?" Smith says, "Her question hit me with the force of revelation. OK, I thought, OK. Time to get back on that raft. . .and since it's always easier for me to tell the truth in fiction, The Last Girls is a novel. . .trying to examine the idea of romance, the relevance of past to present, the themes of memory and desire."

She invents the maverick, painfully disparate lives of five college friends, college suitemates whose after-college paths diverge widely. They are wonderful, complex women, not at all what they seem. Shy Harriet, the teacher; elegant socialite Courtney; Anna, the nationally famous romance writer; and Catherine, a much-married sculptor. Smith spins their stories out in waves between past and present, like the waves lapping at the hulk of the riverboat as they float again down river.

The anchor of the plot is the classmate who is absent, Margaret "Baby" Ballou. You remember her. Every college has one. The bad girl -- beautiful, rich, boy-crazy -- who flaunted all the rules. Her friends watched in awe at what she got away with. They loved her, covered up and agonized for her, and they gather on the riverboat in her memory. One of the college friends quotes their professor's adage that there are only two plots in literature. In one, someone takes a journey, in the other, a stranger comes to town. The Last Girls is one in which all five central characters take life journeys, in college, after college in real life, and now as the novel opens, on the Belle of Natchez, a posh cruise-style riverboat. In the course of the downstream journey, their lives unfold.

Smith pulls the reader forward toward the mysterious down-river magnet of New Orleans, their destination. Will thin, well-coiffed upper-class Courtney, who has all her life "done the right thing," meet her florist lover in New Orleans and finally leave her philandering husband who is losing his memory and health? Will Anna finish the novel she is furiously writing onboard? Anna had a streak of tragedy after college and found herself cleaning luxury rental estates for a living. While cleaning, she noticed all the clues of the residents' lives in the contents of their bottom drawers and medicine cabinets, and began to reconstruct them with characters, plot, and drama. The novels she wrote got her out of other people's houses to become famous. And single Harriet, who narrates most of the story and believes in her own unimportance and invisibility -- will she change? Through Harriet we get to know the fifth member of the group, whose vivid absence has brought them together to strew her ashes on the river as they reach New Orleans.

A journey to strew ashes seems to be a frequent modern device, but the form of this book is unusual. When you think you've read the last page and are quite satisfied, here are more pages with tiny cameos of the lives of more women, women we've never heard of. Who are they? Well, they're the fictionalized other "girls" who accompanied the core group of five down the river, but weren't on the well-constructed raft of the novel's main story. This addendum is blunt, not just odd. It's also quite intentional.

Smith is the South's current starring chronicler of women's lives, and she says in an interview: "For most of us on the real raft, I suspect -- it was the only journey I ever made that ended as it was supposed to. Subsequent trips have been harder, scarier. We have been shipwrecked, we have foundered on hidden shoals, we have lost our running lights. The captain is dead. I can't stick to a traditional plot anymore. Such a plot is more suited to boys' books anyway. Certainly, the linear, beginning-middle-end form doesn't fit the lives of any women I know. For life has turned out to be wild and various, full of the unexpected, and it's a "monstrous big river' out here."

But the glory of the book goes beyond the women. Smith is one of the few writers whose talent for getting inside women is equaled by her fine characterizations of men. Two of the best minor characters in The Last Girls are Russell and Gene, intelligent, comedic, strange and lovable in weird ways. Russell is the current husband of Catherine. Accompanying her on the reunion riverboat ride, he often leaves the party because "a man can't do without the Weather Channel. . .The Weather Channel is what Russell has instead of prayer." He admires the women forecasters, certain ones who are definitive in their pronouncements, also the way they fill their suits and are often pregnant.

What does "the last girls" mean? Smith looks at her yellowed clippings of her long-ago river trip in which the newspaper reporters call them "girls," not women as they would in 2002. "We were the last girls. In 1966, a lot of things were changing for good, though we didn't know it yet."

Life on the 1966 raft, where every girl knew that if they really got in trouble, a phone call to any of their families would bring swift rescue, has gone forever. It's tempting to compare these "last girls" aping Huck Finn and Jim to Peter Pan's "lost boys."

One thing Smith doesn't duck is the racism of the South and lingering attitudes toward southerners and the Civil War. Smith is just naturally inside the head of the South with its many, varied attitudes. What she writes are not southern novels (any more than John Cheever's were up-eastern novels), but rich, sexual, human ones in the wider, universal sense of place, persons, and culture. She is on America's front porch, while most everybody else is inside watching TV.

Some readers will note the clever mix of eastern women's college place names and college rites: a pinch of Smith, a bit of Agnes Scott, some Hollins, and others float to the surface mischievously. One thing's for sure: I'll not sign up for a steamboat cruise down the Mississippi with hokey carnival atmosphere and ploys to lengthen the trip. Instead, I'll hire some scow or barge, and if I can, engage a rugged "Riverlorian" like the riverboat history guide Smith describes, to weave stories of the river into every sunset and plantation house looking down from the high bluffs of wars and conquest. Better still, I'll take Smith along. Her imagination is over the top. Her sense of capturing the talk and outside-the-box lives of people who look ordinary but aren't is, once again, marvelous.

Lee Smith will read from The Last Girls at Creative Loafing Carolina Writers Night, a part of the Novello Festival of Reading. The event takes place Wednesday, October 16, at 7:30pm in the Neighborhood Theatre on 36th Street in Historic North Charlotte. The event is free.

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