Off for the Sweet Hereafter

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Raeford Benton Lynch is a young man of very little distinction. Except for his ungainly appearance (“God, you’re ugly!” is the way one character describes him), there is nothing to set him apart from the other residents of tiny Neely, North Carolina. The underachieving son of an underachieving father and a gluttonous mother (“the fat Jeeter,” as opposed to her sister, “the bald Jeeter”), Benton Lynch has reached adulthood having seldom left his parents’ trailer.

Benton’s life changes when he meets Mr. Overhill, a candy corn addict who makes his living by relocating corpses whose graves lie in condemned areas. Mr. Overhill hires Benton at once, and, together with four other professional ghouls, they travel all over the South in Mr. Overhill’s pickup truck. One day, while digging up graves in a town called Harricanes, Benton meets Jane Elizabeth Firesheets, and it is lust at first sight. After a stormy and highly physical love affair, which includes lovemaking sessions in the Firesheets barn, Jane Elizabeth dumps Benton for another man; in retaliation, Benton turns to a life of crime.

Impressed by his valor, Jane Elizabeth rejoins Benton, and their sometimes violent and always glamourless crime spree through the convenience and small grocery stores of the South provides the main plot of the novel. The real charm of the book, however, lies not in its story, but in its style. The homespun narrator relies on repetition, digression, and oddball asides in evoking the passions, the torpor, and the dark humor of the rural South. Readers of T.R. Pearson’s first novel, A SHORT HISTORY OF A SMALL PLACE, will not be disappointed by this second offering.

Off for the Sweet Hereafter

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

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...

(The entire section is 1516 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXII, June 15, 1986, p. 1499.

Chicago Tribune. June 8, 1986, XIV, p. 36.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, April 1, 1986, p. 497.

Library Journal. CXI, June 1, 1986, p. 141.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 15, 1986, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, June 15, 1986, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, April 25, 1986, p. 65.

Time. CXXVIII, July 14, 1986, p. 64.

Washington Post Book World. XVI, June 15, 1986, p. 3.