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There's Some Land I Want To Sell You

Memoir expands on real estate scam

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It doesn't seem like it's really been a decade since Dennis Covington gave us Salvation on Sand Mountain, a superlative piece of literary journalism that helped set the standard for the art of non-fiction. With the subject matter, it could have gone either way. Covington brought his storyteller's eye to the snake-handling sects of the Southern Appalachians, those curious people living deep in the hills who gather on Sundays to lift up serpents as proof of the protective power of God.

In Covington's gentle and empathetic telling, this passionate backwater of the Christian faith took on a reality it never had before -- not for most of us in the mainstream, who were inclined to dismiss the rural snake-handlers as nothing much more than a cult of fanatics, if we ever thought about them at all. Covington may have had the same inclination, but he was able to chronicle his own surprise at the depth of humanity that was laid out before him.

In the process, he produced a widely acclaimed and award-winning book that has proven to be a hard act to follow. With his wife, Alabama novelist Vicki Covington, he came back a couple of years later with a painful and personal work called Cleavings, a memoir of his own troubled marriage that played to mixed reviews at best.

Now he has returned with another memoir, Redneck Riviera, that once again may leave his admirers with a vague and enigmatic sense of disappointment. But I think we're probably being unfair. This may not be another Sand Mountain, but it's a compelling story that Covington has set out to tell, the story of his father, a good and decent man who once bought a piece of Florida swampland that he thought might become an investment for his family.

For Sam Covington, it was a curious and utterly atypical decision. He had always been a cautious, hard-working father and provider, the last man you'd expect to fall for a transparent real estate scam. But that's what he did, allowing himself to be swept away momentarily by the improbable vision of River Ranch Acres -- a piece of the "Wild West," the brochures promised, hidden away in the Florida Everglades.

Sam never saw his two and a half acres, but he left the parcel of land to his son, explaining poignantly that until that time, "No Covington had ever left anything to anybody." Dennis found himself touched by his father's gesture, and armed with a deed and a record of the taxes paid faithfully through the years, he set out for Florida to claim his inheritance.

He was stunned to discover when he got to the swamps that his own little plot -- along with the other parcels around it -- had been appropriated by the violence-prone members of a Florida "hunt club." These were, as the book makes clear, "a group of gun-toting, talk-radio-listening, anti-government zombies" who were determined to hold on to the land they had stolen.

When Covington tried to stake his claim, vandals torched his truck and shot up his cabin, and even a couple of sympathetic natives warned him urgently that his life was in danger. The police, meanwhile, simply looked the other way. In recounting his adventure, Covington has produced a hair-raising narrative, bizarre and improbable, though you can count on the fact that it's also the truth.

Covington is a writer of unblemished integrity, one of those increasingly rare purveyors of non-fiction who believe it's cheating to embellish the facts. You'd think that credential would be unremarkable, but more and more these days it isn't. We live in an age of "creative non-fiction," where the MFAs from assorted universities believe it's permissible to tinker with the truth, all in the service of their literary art.

Covington chooses not to cut those corners, and what he gives us is a story of adventure, enlarged and rounded into a story of family and the gifts of one generation to another.

It is not the best book that Covington has written. But it's a tale both meaningful and true -- in the words of one critic, "a beautiful little book," in which the idiosyncrasies of one southern family touch something deep inside of us all.

My guess is you'll probably never see it on the best-seller lists. But it is, in its way, a small and unexpected literary treasure.

Frye Gaillard is a Charlotte-area author whose latest book is Cradle of Freedom, a popular history of the civil rights movement.

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