(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Dorothy Allison, the author of Bastard out of Carolina (1992), the acclaimed best-seller and finalist for the National Book Award, has written another novel exploring the nature of family and friendship, love and loss. Bastard out of Carolina was an unremittingly dark southern gothic exploration of child abuse that changed the face of the literary molester forever from Vladimir Nabokov’s urbane, sexually arrested man/child Humbert Humbert to the cruel and ignorant persona of Allison’s thwarted Daddy Glen. Cavedweller, on the other hand, turns the reader’s compassion to more common but often equally destructive lapses in judgment, passionate excesses, and plain stupidity with which unthinking and confused adults often burden young and innocent lives. A great deal of the difference in tone between the two novels has to do with the narrative voice. While Bastard out of Carolina is presented through the eyes of its young protagonist, whose confusion, hurt, and rage make a direct appeal to the reader’s sympathies, even though the story is told with an almost preternatural objectivity, Cavedweller is told by a traditional omniscient narrator, who in a truly God-like way, seems equally empathetic to all the characters, even though the book ends up being primarily the story of young Cissy’s coming of age.

Cavedweller opens with the line, “Death changes everything,” which could in many ways be a coda for the entire novel as well. In the first chapter Cissy’s father, Randall, has died in a motorcycle wreck, catapulting her mother Delia into action after ten years of booze and rock and roll. Sober and contrite, she journeys from Los Angeles to Cayro, Georgia, on a deeply felt and deeply flawed mission to regain her lost daughters and reunite Cissy with her true kin. Her passionate intensity and lack of common sense on the cross-country journey foreshadow things to come and clearly capture the plight of children whose lives are governed by fiercely loving, but often irresponsible, adults.

Delia’s yearning for her hometown is, not surprisingly, unreciprocated; from the cook at the local diner to her Granddaddy Byrd, nobody in Cayro is glad to see her. Nobody thinks she has any right to reclaim the daughters she abandoned years earlier for a career singing blues with the itinerant band Mud Dog. This is an old-fashioned town with old-fashioned values, and Delia, like Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), will have to repent patiently and publicly. She has a complete breakdown, leaving her daughter Cissy not only bereaved by her father’s death but also alone and beleaguered in an inhospitable new town. Delia’s previously abandoned daughters, Dede and Amanda, have been raised with much Christian discipline but little Christian charity by their Grandma Windsor and are no more disposed to comfort their newly arrived mother than the other flinty residents of Cayro. Redemption will come slowly, it seems, and mostly through the ministrations of female friends, the first of which is M. T., recently divorced and eager to resume her childhood friendship with the now slightly famous Delia.

It is clear even this early in the novel that in Delia, Allison is portraying the anatomy of a blues singer. The first few riffs have already been played: the death of a loved one, loss and abandonment, the false allure of the highway, shame and repentance, abuse and abnegation, booze and the kindness of strangers. These are the staples of the blues universe, and the women who sing these painful songs, who move audiences to tears and jubilation, earn the right to mesmerize by paying for their moments of glory with their own aborted private lives. While Delia has quit drinking and singing, she has only just begun to pay the real price, as she confronts her family and her past and fights to get her daughters back.

Delia begins to replace impetuosity with patience, passion with guile. When she realizes that Grandma Windsor will never give her daughters back to her, she makes a Mephistophelean deal with her abusive ex-husband: Delia will take care of the...

(The entire section is 1705 words.)