By: Tito Perdue
Reviewed by: B.J. Hollars
The Overlook Press, 2007
Lee: $13.95, Paperback; Fields of Asphodel: $24.95, Hardcover
We are first introduced to Leland Pefley—the crotchety, perpetually dissatisfied protagonist of Tito Perdue’s debut novel Lee in 1991—in his final days on earth. In an attempt to take one last inventory of the world, Lee returns to his childhood town to resurrect old ghosts, bury others, and chastise the changing world with sharp raps issued by the end of his cane. Upon his return, he finds fault with humankind, believing that people of the modern world no longer trouble themselves with “turning life into spirit”—a transformation earned by “read[ing] widely” and “thinking at all times.”
With his harsh, vitriolic humor, Leland Pefley maps out a world without redemption, without hope, and one in which the only means of correcting the problem involves “an advanced torture machine with the whole world attached.”
In many instances, the novel, recently reissued in paperback, reads like a “shame on you” to society—blasting money and materialism as cardinal sins—while Lee himself prefers the simplicities of reading. Perdue writes, “[Lee] liked to pile up his books and lie on them”—an act which speaks much to his philosophy. For Lee, reading is a crucial element to ensure change, and “to that person belongs the world.”
Yet in many ways, Lee feels like a mere stepping stone to help us arrive at Perdue’s powerful sequel, Fields of Asphodel. We return to find Lee exactly where we left him in the previous book—freshly dead in a dark woods at night. For the entirety of the novel, we follow him in a manner reminiscent of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Much like in Lee, Pefley continues his wandering, purgatorial quest, yet this time it is in the realm of the dead. The book’s title refers to this realm. According to the classical Greeks, it is a place where indifferent souls wind up.
Yet Leland Pefley is far from indifferent himself. A man with convictions, with vim, surely there is a heaven or hell reserved for Pefley. But perhaps this speaks to Perdue’s greater point: that morality is a judgment call, and we—with all our experience and wisdom—are not qualified to do the judging.
Midway through Lee, Pefley finds himself in a difficult dilemma: “having to choose which of the world’s writings to salvage and which to let lapse.” It is a predicament quite troubling for a man whose love for reading runs so deep. Yet if conscious of his place in literature, certainly Lee would choose those of his creator, Tito Perdue, to live on. Perdue’s books are thoughtful and gutsy, and they offer cautions which couldn’t be louder if Leland dangled an albatross from his neck. They are books worth the salvage. They are not books to be lapsed.
B.J. Hollars of Fort Wayne, Indiana, is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama and nonfiction editor for Black Warrior Review.