John (Marsden) Ehle (Jr.) John Cook Wyllie - Essay

John Cook Wyllie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Lion on the Hearth"] is John Ehle's third novel, and like its emotionally charged predecessors (the North Carolina Negro story, "Move Over, Mountain," and the story of the wandering stranger in "Kingstree Island"), it may be put down as a succès d'estime.

The story is of a Gant-like, Asheville, N.C., family, which worries as much as it can, but the differences between "Look Homeward Angel" and "Lion on the Hearth" are more striking than the similarities. The title-character is once more a wandering stranger, who, like Tom Wolfe, tried to go home again, to succeed only years later in death. But the central character, a young lad named Kin, is the sensitive soul isolated in a hostile world, struggling with sensual imagination against the malignancy of man.

The emotional intensity which Mr. Ehle exhibits is neither Caldwellian nor Faulknerian in quality. No powerful social or philosophical conviction charges it, and yet it has the merit of arising from a passionate consideration of the commonplace. The story of the Asheville family during the years of the depression opens with an account of a childbirth, ranges from a sweetheart-and-roses seduction, through a hotel-and-brothel scene, to a horse-trading deal de luxe, but the subject matter is a secondary consideration. The author is feeling the family's pulse with an audio-frequency amplifier, and his emotion carries him sometimes into the area of pathological inflammation of his conjunctives.

The book is in the mainstream of a worthy tradition of Southern fiction, and it can be read in the South as well as the rest of the United States as though it dealt with a foreign country. No one, unless it was Tom Wolfe, has ever before looked on Asheville with these elongated eyes any more than anyone else ever saw Jeanne Hébuternė with the compassion of a Modigliani. This is Parisian Impressionism, Tar-Heel Division, Asheville Section.

John Cook Wyllie, "Isolated in a Hostile World," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 15, 1961, p. 44.