Valerie Sayers Criticism

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Alfred Corn (review date 29 January 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 the reply, based on recent Due East gossip: "You better believe it." They probably don't even know that Tim Rooney, a sort of Berriganish avant-garde Catholic, is having an affair with Eileen Connelly, the plain dish of ordinary sex improved by the salsa of exhibitionism and bondage. Spiritual leadership in the parish is no doubt flagging. Father Berkeley, a whisky priest with a good heart but declining powers, does what he can but is often indisposed. In fact, drink adds to Becky Perdue's difficulties as well, alienating her from all but one of her four children and giving Jack Perdue grounds for a custody suit. Madness never seems far away from the women involved in the marital tug-of-war, and eventually it overtakes Marygail on Easter weekend just before her baptism into that church outside of which there is no salvation.

Ms. Sayers has a complicated story, and she uses a number of methods to tell it—first- and third-person narration, letters, interior reverie, even a suite of rankly amateur poems written by Marygail. Tim, Becky and Stephen are the intellectuals, able to bring perspectives from Pascal, Donne, Blake and Graham Greene to bear on the stuff of their lives. (Father Berkeley, too, with his chronic doubt and his afternoon brandy, has certainly fictionalized himself with Greene's help.) The whole novel has a definite Christian-symbolic substructure, beginning in the season of Epiphany and moving toward Passiontide, when all the plot threads suddenly knot up together in a way that hints at divine intervention. This mixture of soap-opera plot, sacred story, sitcom humor, sex and analysis makes for heady reading. Ms. Sayers's first novel was praised for its passion and this one is equally vehement, filled with sharp confrontations, broad gestures and recklessly driven cars.

These characters are memorable and believable, however much they startle with excursions into the abnormal. Ms. Sayers has a gift for voice and the honest, gritty commentary about human behavior in stressful circumstances. She writes clearly and forcefully, with her own version of the humor that Southern writers from Eudora Welty to Flannery O'Connor to Reynolds Price use so tellingly. Her asides and filling in of the characters' past histories...

(The entire section is 15,040 words.)