By: Todd Dills
Reviewed by: Jim Murphy
Featherproof Books, 2006
Billy Jones, the central character in Todd Dills’ debut novel Sons of the Rapture, is a son of South Carolina, the progeny of a fractured idealism embodied in his father Johnny, and heir to a staggeringly heavy weight regarding community and responsibility that has dogged him all the way to Chicago.
Billy, like so many fictional Southern sons, is on the run from the collective haunts of his past. Also like a good number of these same sons, he holds some part of that past sacred, and he struggles to draw strength from it. “Desertion does not have to be absolute, you know,” says Albert Ledbetter, who, along with Tope Talbert has been dispatched like a whiskey-sick prophet to prepare the way for Johnny’s re-entry into Billy’s life, “It can be a kind of gathering, a rest and building of strength for the fights of the future.”
The forces gathering in this novel are primal; they start with the nature of family and community and point toward the apocalypse. But where Dills makes them new, where he excels and amazes, is in the weaving of sharp, contemporary intelligence and wit into his traditional tale. Arrayed against the Dixiecrat demagoguery of Sen. Thorpe Storm is the liberated, funked-up, tiara-sporting musical genius Artichoke Heart Jones—favorite of the street fiestas and hole-in-the-wall dives of Chicago. A Reconstruction fable of a chicken-headed Yankee doctor takes its place beside the legend of Nova Capone, a club DJ who facilitates a worldwide network of wealth redistribution. Philanderers, murderers, and drunks mingle with art students, revolutionary cowboys, and visionary pilgrims. Sometimes they’re one in the same.
It may sound confusing, but there’s a key formal property to remember here: The structure of Dills’ novel, in fine postmodern form, re-orders the experience of past and present, South Carolina and Chicago, black and white, drunk and sober, performer and audience, and nearly every other traditional dialectic into a glorious, fast-cutting fugue that calls each state into question, demonstrating that none are as separate as they seem. It’s not an easy arrangement, but the effects are rapturous.
Jim Murphy teaches creative writing at the University of Montevallo.