By: William Cobb
Reviewed by: John H. Hafner
NewSouth Books, 2010
William Cobb’s latest novel, The Last Queen of the Gypsies, is a terrific story about two wanderers: Minnie, a young woman abandoned by her Gypsy family at age eleven because she has one blue eye and one green eye and is therefore unlucky; Lester Ray Holsomback, a young man who runs away from his abusive, alcoholic father at age fourteen, accompanied by an elderly woman (Mrs. Mack); and a fourteen-year-old girl named Virgin Mary Duck. The novel is hilariously funny yet sometimes very sad, raunchy at times yet wholesome in its search for family and community, about love but also about cruelty and murder, full of delicious detail yet fast-paced and impossible to put down.
The wanderings and searches center on the southeastern United States and focus on carnivals and Gypsy camps. The world is chaotic and mean in general, but the carnival and Gypsy communities have a center to them that provides a kind of security for those who belong. And both worlds are, in general, kind to strangers.
Minnie is a practical woman. At one point she expresses her disgust with all the useless chatter that characterizes so much of human communication, thinking that if people could distill their thoughts and write them down then every utterance would be a tiny poem. At another point in her search for self, Minnie rejects the human tendency to label people. She hates the tendency but also finds comfort in it: She doesn’t need to explain herself to people who are satisfied with placing her in a cubbyhole.
Lester Ray also lacks sympathy for those who are mean or cruel or even just inconsiderate of others. But he is naïve and cursed with a rotten temper which takes over when someone he cares for is hurt. When his girlfriend Sheila is abused by a brute, Lester Ray attacks him brutally. But, when he eventually comes to his senses, he is reduced to tears in his remorse.
Lester Ray grows up; Minnie matures; the complex inter-weavings of the two plots are eventually resolved. And the Gypsies endure. The Last Queen of the Gypsies is a wonderfully complex novel about life in all its richness. Nov. 2010
John H. Hafner is a retired Professor Emeritus from Spring Hill College in Mobile and a member of the Forum’s board of directors.