By: William Cobb; With a Preface and Afterword by Don Noble
Reviewed by: Kirk Curnutt
Livingston Press, 2008
First published in 1984, William Cobb’s Coming of Age at the Y is a reminder of a type of bawdy, rollicking novel that only Christopher Buckley seems to write anymore. From the late 1960s through the mid-80s, writers who came of age in the Eisenhower era tended to parody America’s kitschy commercialism and newfound sexual freedoms, almost always satirically but not always with the metaphysical preoccupations of Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, or Philip Roth. Instead, several comic authors aimed only to capture the lunacy of contemporary life in all its gaudy, gauche silliness. To read Livingston Press’s reprint of Cobb’s Southern delight is thus a bittersweet experience: It reminds us of a time when American prose could revel in a lubricious gusto whose humor was rowdy instead of carping, when ribaldry was a pastime, when the bane of our existence today, snark, sounded like some kind of rare bird.
Unlike in Cobb’s subsequent novels, the setting here is not a fictional version of his native Demopolis, Alabama, but Nashville—a version that makes Robert Altman’s look soporific. The naïf heroine is Delores Lovelady, who arrives from the boonies to compete in the Miss Channel Thirteen Contest, only to pass through a series of slapstick episodes involving hornball business titans, rhinestone cowboys with half-baked Hank Williams aspirations, and wanna-be messiahs, mostly driven by one thing: sex. (The book’s title not only refers to Delores’s own maturation but to a blue movie title). The names alone suggest the flavor of the comedy: Godine Chenowith, Tall Paul Poindexter, Slim Genes, Virgil “Luna-tick” Luna, and J. B. Skates are just a few of the pantaloons who appear to inspire chuckles galore.
As Don Noble’s preface rightly acknowledges, the sheer preposterousness of character and plot owe an obvious debt to Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood; yet whereas O’Connor’s glum theology is ultimately sadistic in the punishments it visits up her dramatis personae, Cobb is out to milk irreverence rather than extirpate the vine. Ultimately, Coming of Age at the Y reminds me more of novels like Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge and Terry Southern’s Candy more than Hazel Motes’ brimstone jeremiad—books, that is, that put the “fun” in “funny.”
Noble provides not only a top-notch preface that outlines Cobb’s career but an afterward that compares his fictional treatments of the Alabama Black Belt to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. It should be reassuring to struggling authors to note, apropos of Noble’s commentary, that Cobb was in his mid-forties when Coming of Age at the Y first appeared and a decade older when New York finally came calling with 1992’s A Walk Through Fire. Ditto that he is still actively writing today. Sept 2008
Kirk Curnutt is the author of Breathing Out the Ghost. His next novel, Dixie Noir, will be published in November 2009.