Valerie Sayers Essay - Critical Essays

Sayers, Valerie

Introduction

Valerie Sayers 1952–

American novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Sayers's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 50.

Sayers is one of a generation of writers who ushered in a period of "new regionalism" in American literature. Focusing her work on a single geographic area—the fictional town of Due East, South Carolina—Sayers at once paid homage to southern American writers such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Connor, and advanced the genre by dealing with specifically contemporary issues, particularly loss of religious faith, mental illness, and the chasm between the genders. Critics have praised Sayers for her realistic and sympathetic portrayals of family life, her compact, resonant prose, and her scrupulous attention to detail.

Biographical Information

Sayers was born and raised in Beaufort, South Carolina, to a Roman Catholic family, a background that figures prominently in her fiction. At seventeen she left the South to attend Fordham University in New York City, earning her undergraduate degree in 1973. Following her graduation, Sayers returned to Beaufort to teach a writing course at the Technical University of the Low-Country. At that time she began to seriously entertain the idea of writing professionally. In 1974 she married Christian Jara, and the couple moved back to New York, where Sayers enrolled in the master of fine arts program at Columbia University. Her thesis was a collection of short stories. She took a teaching position at a branch of the City University of New York and began writing her first novel, which was never published. In 1983 she finished work on her second novel, which was published as Due East in 1987. Sayers followed the success of Due East with four more novels and much critical acclaim. In 1994 she was appointed Director of Creative Writing at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana.

Major Works

Mary Faith Rapple, the heroine of Due East, is fifteen, unmarried, and pregnant. An unusually bright and spirited young woman, she becomes a defiant loner in her small town, maintaining that her pregnancy is a virgin conception. The novel explores the tentative relationship between Mary Faith and her father, Jesse, in the trying months of her pregnancy—a relationship suffused with a shared but unspoken grief for Mary Faith's mother, who died of cancer three years earlier. Sayers's next novel, How I Got Him Back, picks up Mary Faith's story four years later and introduces other characters who recur in her subsequent works, including, Tim Rooney. In How I Got Him Back three women—Mary Faith, Marygail Dugan, and Becky Perdue—struggle to maintain relationships with the men in their lives in an atmosphere intolerant to spiritual peace and mental stability. In Who Do You Love Sayers tells the story of a single day in the Rooney family: November 21, 1963—the day before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Dolores Rooney is a New Yorker, transplanted through marriage to the town of Due East, who has never adjusted to life in the South. Dolores's infidelity, her husband Bill's impending bankruptcy, and their precocious eleven-year-old daughter Kate's sexual curiosity form the basis for most of the action in the novel. In The Distance Between Us Sayers for the first time moved away from the South and her recurring characters. Although Franny Starkey and Steward Morehouse grow up together in Due East, they go to New York, where the sexually promiscuous Franny meets Michael Burke, a militant Irish alcoholic and drug abuser, with whom she travels to Ireland. The three characters' lives are hopelessly entwined, with each trying to find salvation through his or her artistic ambitions. In Brain Fever Sayers returned to more familiar characters; this time Tim Rooney, now married to Mary Faith Rapple but in search of his first wife, Bernadette, in New York. On the brink of mental collapse, Tim meets several people on his journey who guide him through his search and his breakdown; ultimately, his religious faith is restored, although he does not recover completely from madness.

Critical Reception

Sayers has been roundly praised by critics, who find her probing of contemporary religious issues and the apparent chaos of modern daily life humourous, moving, and provoking. Her focus on the American South in particular has earned her much acclaim for its intimate portrait of the culture. While some critics have found her use of multiple narrators distracting, others agree that this technique allows the reader greater access to the thoughts and feelings of individual characters. Jonathan Yardley has written of Sayers: "She's smart and irreverent, but she's also kind and compassionate; she gives us imperfect people and makes us like and care about them, an essential task for any novelist but one accomplished by surprisingly few."

Principal Works

Due East (novel) 1987
How I Got Him Back; or, Under the Cold Moon's Shine (novel) 1989
Who Do You Love (novel) 1991
The Distance Between Us (novel) 1994
Brain Fever (novel) 1996

Criticism

Alfred Corn (review date 29 January 1989)

SOURCE: "Trouble in the Form of a Redhead," in New York Times Book Review, January 29, 1989, p. 7.

[In the following review, Corn asserts that in How I Got Him Back, Sayers shows great promise as a novelist. Corn also compares her work to that of other celebrated southern writers.]

Southerners are sexy, but that is only part of the problem. Yankees who saw the movie The Big Chill, shot in Beaufort, S.C., were made aware by the setting and some of the characters that there is a New South, populated by a restive generation that has survived the upheavals of the 1960's and is now more or less resigned to assimilation into Middle America. Valerie Sayers, who grew up in Beaufort and has published one earlier novel, Due East, gives a fair sample of the new breed in her second book [How I Got Him Back]. This story is also set in the fictional town of Due East, S. C., which bears a strong resemblance to Beaufort, with its old white-columned houses and newer suburban homes, the closeness of salt marshes and the sea and a staunch little congregation of Roman Catholics in the parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Nearly all the characters in How I Got Him Back are Catholic, and at least two of them are concerned with the problems mentioned in the title. Becky Perdue refuses to believe that her husband, Jack, really means to leave her for a common redhead with no education named Judi. Marygail Dugan hopes despite everything that she has not lost her husband, Stephen, to a young unmarried mother named Mary Faith Rapple. Life in Due East is anything but placid.

One of the ladies of the church's Altar Guild, who serve in this novel as a sort of deploring Greek chorus, asks, "You suppose the whole world is living in sin?" and receives...

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Deanna D'Errico (review date Summer 1989)

SOURCE: "Two Timers," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 4, No. 4, Summer 1989, p. 7.

[In the following review, D'Errico praises Sayers's evocative portrayal of people and places in How I Got Him Back, calling her "a virtuoso of portraiture."]

Mary Faith Rapple, unwed mother and heroine of Valerie Sayers's outstanding first novel, Due East, has been "crazy in love" with Stephen Dugan since she bared her pregnant body to him at age fifteen. Now, in How I Got Him Back, she is almost twenty-one; he has promised to leave his wife and marry her. But as she sits in the park, waiting to feed Stephen a bag of cold crab omelets that she made from a recipe in that morning's newspaper, she reflects "with a chill that becomes less and less pronounced as she grew used to its presence … that [he] had become very fond of her and her boy. Fond. Once he had been passionate…. She had to think of a way to make him want her so badly that he wouldn't mention custody and marriage." Will Mary Faith get Stephen back?

Marygail Dugan was nineteen when she met husband-to-be Stephen: "nut-brown, horse-faced, horse-toothed, skinny, angular, all elbows and knees. She wore micro-miniskirts and pink tank tops made of spun sugar: she looked just fine and she knew it, too." For years she has ignored Stephen and occupied herself instead with drugs, the Due East Little Theater, and sleeping with Marines. But now Stephen has sold a screenplay, and she is afraid that "he is going to be rich and try to take Maureen away from me and I'll have to go back to Columbia and live with Momma and Daddy and go to the country club every afternoon and play tennis with lawyers' wives. Oh god, OhgodOhgodOhgodOhgod." Will Marygail get Stephen back?

Becky Perdue's husband, Jack, has left her after some twenty years of marriage for Judi with an i, a dyed redhead who paints hearts on her fingernails. She has felt nothing but contempt for him for years; she had never forgiven him for being an Izod-clad real estate agent instead of an intellectual. But now that he is gone. Becky has fallen into a "black hole." She has gotten drunk in the middle of the day on nips of Rebel Yell she has found in her son's closet and is unable even to clean the cereal bowls off the kitchen island that, along with acres of beige carpet, she...

(The entire section is 977 words.)

Pinckney Benedict (review date 10 March 1991)

SOURCE: "A Girl's March away from Innocence," in Chicago Tribune Books, March 10, 1991, pp. 6-7.

[In the following review, Benedict finds the ending of Who Do You Love somewhat unsatisfying but asserts that the novel overall "fulfills its mission."]

The action of Valerie Sayers's new novel, Who Do You Love, takes place during the fateful month of November 1963 in the small South Carolina coastal town of Due East. At the center of the book stands the Rooney family. Catholics living in "a place where the other kids called you mackerel snapper and asked you were the nuns bald under those habits."

That's the way Bill Rooney, the failing...

(The entire section is 980 words.)

Howard Frank Mosher (review date 7 April 1991)

SOURCE: "24 Hours in Due East, S. C.," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 96, pp. 3, 29.

[In the following review, Mosher finds Who Do You Love a satisfying, likeable, and well-written novel.]

Over the past decade or so, a number of America's finest younger novelists have staked out fictional claims on out-of-the-way corners of the country. Sometimes referred to by critics as the "new regionalism," this fiction is, in fact, neither especially new nor, in any limiting or quaint sense of the word, regional. One thinks, for example, of the dark and decaying New England mill towns of Ernest Hebert and Russell Banks, of Cathie Pelletier's remote Canadian border...

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Brewster M. Robertson with Valerie Sayers (interview date 7 February 1994)

SOURCE: An interview with Valerie Sayers, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 6, February 7, 1994, p. 66.

[In the following interview, Sayers discusses her career and influences, as well as major themes in her novels.]

Both geographically and culturally, the moss-bearded live oaks and white-columned antebellum mansions fronting the waterfront on Bay Street in idyllic Beaufort, S. C., seem far removed from the labeled Golden Dome crowning the Administration Building at Notre Dame University. But for novelist Valerie Sayers, newly appointed Director of Creative Writing at the South Bend, Ind., university, homegrown Beaufort is the connecting link to her literary roots....

(The entire section is 1990 words.)

Jill McCorkle (review date 20 February 1994)

SOURCE: "One Good, One Bad, One Angry," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 99, February 20, 1994, p. 23.

[In the following review, McCorkle finds The Distance Between Us skillfully written and thematically realistic.]

Valerie Sayers's fourth novel, The Distance Between Us, explores some 40 years in the lives of Steward Morehouse and Franny Starkey, an unlikely couple devoted to a relationship that for the most part exists and thrives on what might have been. Raised by his wealthy paternal grandparents and his exotic mother, to whom Franny bears a striking resemblance. Steward is a young Southern gentleman with a healthy trust fund. The daughter of a high...

(The entire section is 753 words.)

Liz Rosenberg (review date 20 March 1994)

SOURCE: "Novelist Valerie Sayers's Feel for Life's Actual Daily Chaos," in Chicago Tribune Books, March 20, 1994, p. 6.

[In the following review, Rosenberg praises Sayers's ability to capture life "in all its messy glory."]

To say that Valerie Sayers is a natural-born writer wildly underestimates the facts. She has published four novels in the past seven years, all of them set in the fictional town of Due East, modeled on Sayers's own hometown, Beaufort, S. C.:

The road was dark with moss: above him the old oaks formed an arch to welcome him home, and in the first light the birds were dark, too, and raucous. Men passed in pickup...

(The entire section is 759 words.)

Michael J. Farrell (essay date 27 May 1994)

SOURCE: "Sayers's Folks Stagger toward Redemption," in National Catholic Reporter, Vol. 30, No. 30, May 27. 1994, p. 17.

[In the following review, Farrell examines elements of Catholicism in Sayers's novels.]

If you are one of seven kids, you have to be resourceful to stand out. If you're from the uptight town of Due East, you can stand out by being the school slut. If you are also a Catholic, it takes creativity to be good at the same time. If, furthermore, you plan to be a painter in Paris and you wear your father's ties because it is 1965 and they are doing it in London—if so, you presumably would want to leave town at the first opportunity.

No...

(The entire section is 3408 words.)

Michael Parker (review date 25 February 1996)

SOURCE: "Crazy in Manhattan," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXVI, No. 8, February 25, 1996, p. 7.

[In the following review, Parker praises Sayers's honest portrayal in Brain Fever of mental illness and the universal search for faith despite adversity.]

Valerie Sayers's newest novel, and her first to take place predominantly outside fictional Due East, S. C., opens with this quote from Kierkegaard: "To have faith is precisely to lose one's mind so as to win God." Faith, or the loss of it, drives Tim Rooney to renounce his financee Mary Faith Rapple just weeks before their wedding and light out for Manhattan. As the story forges northward, both protagonist...

(The entire section is 996 words.)

Elizabeth Benedict (review date 17 March 1996)

SOURCE: "Descent into SoHo," in New York Times Book Review, March 17, 1996, p. 8.

[In the following review, Benedict admits to some flaws in Sayers's character development in Brain Fever but overall admires the novel's psychological depth.]

The kingdom of madness is a destination we never visit voluntarily, and such are its shifting borders and evanescent landmarks that those who make the journey are often not sure where they are headed or when they have arrived.

For Gogol's madman, the St. Petersburg insane asylum to which he is committed is Spain, he is its king and the earth is about to land on the moon. For Tim Rooney [in Brain...

(The entire section is 1186 words.)

Alice McDermott (review date 1 June 1996)

SOURCE: "Crazed Protagonist Deranges Novel," in Commonweal, Vol. CXXIII, No. 11, June 1, 1996, pp. 20-21.

[In the following review, McDermott praises Sayers's writing style in Brain Fever but finds her portrayal of mental illness oversimplified.]

The problem at the heart of this witty, energetic fifth novel by the author of Due East and The Distance Between Us is not that its narrator, Tim Rooney, is a madman: bug-eyed geniuses giving diabolically brilliant accounts of themselves are not unknown in literature. The problem is that Tim Rooney ("middle-aged failed academic, failed musician, failed husband") is mentally ill—a far less romantic...

(The entire section is 994 words.)

Valerie Miner (review date 6 July 1997)

SOURCE: "Faith, Hope and Crisis," in Chicago Tribune Books, July 6, 1997, Sec. 14, p. 2.

[In the following review, Miner lauds Brain Fever as "rewarding for that large population of us who have been both Catholic and crazy."]

Valerie Sayers's fifth book, Brain Fever, is a brilliantly agile road novel whose characters careen from small-town South Carolina to the wilderness of New York City. This witty, picaresque story is also a skillful, philosophical allegory about the lines between faith and madness.

Brain Fever opens on Holy Thursday as Tim Rooney, 45-year-old adjunct philosophy professor, medicated schizophrenic and practicing...

(The entire section is 1179 words.)