T. R. Pearson scored a great success with his first novel, A Short History of a Small Place (1985), which was hailed as nothing short of a comic masterpiece by both regional and national reviewers. The book generated good feelings through its use of a rustic Southern background, its agreeably idiosyncratic (not to say loony) small-town characters, and the author’s very distinctive narrative voice, which approximated, in its discursive, repetitive, understated manner, the oral tradition so often associated with the Southern speaker.
Pearson’s second novel, Off for the Sweet Hereafter, follows close on the heels of A Short History of a Small Place, and, like its predecessor, it is set primarily in and around the small town of Neely, North Carolina, located geographically somewhere in the middle of the state but imaginatively in some strange combination of Lubberland and Mayberry.
The main narrative line of Off for the Sweet Hereafter is concerned with Raeford Benton Lynch and his bumbling descent into a life of crime, but this story is embedded in the much larger picture Pearson draws of family and community and Benton Lynch’s place in both. In order to prepare the reader to understand and appreciate Benton Lynch’s fate, Pearson must first explain, in great, meandering detail, just who the Lynches are. He does this by describing, in the first fifty pages of the novel, the discovery of a Mrs. Throckmorton in her upstairs bedroom. Mrs. Throckmorton is known locally as the “bald Jeeter” (her maiden name) because she wears a wig. This designation also distinguishes her from her sister, known as the “fat Jeeter,” who is married to Raeford Lynch, a “chickenhouse” Lynch because he is of the branch of the family that raises chickens. Raeford Lynch and his wife, the “fat Jeeter,” are the parents of Benton Lynch, who slowly takes his place as the book’s protagonist.
In one sense, Mrs. Throckmorton’s death (a natural death—she has passed away in bed) has nothing to do with the rest of the story. (There is very much a shaggy-dog element to the entire novel.) It does, however, introduce the theme of death which runs throughout the book. For what is basically a comic story, Off for the Sweet Hereafter (as its title indicates) is obsessively concerned with the act and aftermath of dying. For example, following the “bald Jeeter” Throckmorton’s death and funeral, her nephew, Benton Lynch, joins up with a Mr. C. E. Overhill, who makes him a member of a grave-digging crew and takes him into Tennessee to excavate a number of family cemeteries which are destined to be flooded by a new dam. In this section of the book (by far the most admirably sustained and often brilliant of the many set pieces which make up the novel), Benton (and the reader) are introduced to the practical art of grave reclamation: how to distinguish decomposed bodies from dirt, for example. This trek into the backwoods is replete with the standard Southern grotesques and degenerates and psychopaths who always inhabit this region in the popular mind, and it is also here that Benton Lynch meets Jane Elizabeth Firesheets, the highly sexed, hot-blooded country girl who is the immediate cause of his tragedy.
Jane Elizabeth Firesheets introduces Benton Lynch to the mysteries and glories of sexual experimentation. Because of her he abandons his grave-digging job. Later, when she takes up with another boy, Benton turns to thievery. Roaming the countryside, he begins a series of robberies of small country stores, always asking his victim, “Do you know who I am?” and threatening to shoot him in the testicles if he resists or hesitates. He then...