By: M. Wilhoit
Reviewed by: Catherine Alexander
“Who am I?” The quest for self-knowledge has provided authors and readers the opportunity to ponder this question through literature. This deceptively simple question propels M. Wilhoit’s novel Hadleyville Nights, which is comprised of a collection of Internet postings written by the protagonist, Heathcliff Vanlandingham, to understand how his life has become what it is and to explore the meaning of life through the Internet, specifically in chat rooms and blogs. The blogs work as a mechanism to provide the reader information, and much like pulp fictions, soap operas, or melodramas, the novel is set in a town that is much like Mayberry with David Lynch-like surrealism combined with some old-fashioned Southern Gothic mixed with the grotesque and the absurd.
Wilhoit’s novel is a postmodern excursion: It juxtaposes rural life in a fishbowl town, full of glass houses without curtains, smiling faces spitting out secrets like watermelon seeds within the world of cyberspace. The novel’s organization defies the normative formula and typical format further emphasizing the fragmentation the protagonist faces. Rather than using the traditional novel format of chapters, Wilhoit places her protagonist’s ruminations in chronological order from his Internet postings, coupled with message board and chat room comments from Internet message boards, illuminating the present with recollections of the past as Vanlandingham seeks to remedy the postmodern condition of isolation and his pastoral identity in pixels:
Where am I? Who am I? I own and run an Oldsmobile dealership in a Tennessee mountain town. I stay married to Catherine. Is that all of it? … Maybe on a computer is the place where I should lay down my thoughts and recollections. I could back them up on a disk for a record. I think I’ll give it a shot. Life has its ups and downs for all of us. I’ll see how it looks in print. Or pixels as the folks on the message boards keep saying. Maybe, eventually, I’ll get some idea of who I am. Where I am. What I am.
The novel itself is a collection Cliff’s blogs, which weave together his past and present as he looks to cyberspace to find himself.
Wilhoit creates characters who are engaging without becoming caricatures within this pulp fiction-like drama that is steeped in romance, intrigue, and suspense. The novel is loaded with action and anecdotes through which Wilhoit deftly employs humor to diffuse some of the dramatic tension without heavy handedness, and she carefully crafts situational comedy that provides levity in an otherwise serious occasion. This homespun tale amuses and entertains with wit and playfulness.
Catherine Alexander writes from Montevallo.