“He had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.”
– Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere
In my own life, I am often struck by Gaiman’s unavoidable truth: everything seems to happen at once. No sooner does one major event occur, but others are sure to follow … always at the least convenient moment. This universal constant is never actually vocalized during the course of Lisa Howorth’s debut novel, Flying Shoes, but I have no doubt that the majority of the characters would agree … in particular the protagonist, Mary Byrd Thornton. Her morning begins with the first in a cascading series of events, a phone call from a Richmond detective, informing her that the investigation into her stepbrother’s gruesome molestation and murder nearly thirty years prior is being reopened; would she please come up from Mississippi at her earliest convenience to join the rest of her family for a conference?
This stunning and shocking phone call is immediately followed by another, this one from Lindsay Fyce: a nosy Richmond reporter intent on digging up the old tragedy and hopefully scooping the police on what is sure to be a big story. Mary Byrd can understand, intellectually, why this reporter is drawn to her family’s history, but hates it all the same; she doesn’t want a total stranger trampling all over her life and Stevie’s horrible death … especially for cash. Her family never really talked about what happened, they put all their grief and horror aside, shutting the door on the whole mess – but now that door has swung wide open.
As a result, Mary Byrd finds her world (already full to bursting with the mundane chaos of a husband, two children, several pets, and a host of eccentric friends and acquaintances) spinning out of control, leading her to discover that supposedly indestructible Corelle dishware is, in fact, breakable … if you throw it hard enough against the floor. Then again, what isn’t?
As disruptive and disorienting as the two phone calls appear at first, they prove to be just the beginning for Mary Byrd; there’s a lot more just waiting to leap out at her. A shocking and horrifying tragedy has just touched the lives of a family very close to her own, leaving everyone who knows them reeling. A cold front of apocalyptic proportions is bearing down on town: the infamous Ice Storm of ’96 (as opposed to the Blizzard of ’93, or this year’s Snowmageddon). Trees actually explode from the cold, which does not happen in Mississippi. Mary Byrd actually shoots out of town just ahead of the storm, hitching a ride to Richmond on a big-rig chicken truck; we see the unpleasant fallout of bad winter weather in the South through the eyes of those left behind, while she deals with her own personal storm in Virginia.
This is not just Mary Byrd’s story, although she is the center from which everything else springs. Through many eyes and from multiple angles, we meet all of the fascinating, complex, contradictory people who inhabit her world. The novel is very Southern in the sense that you can’t truly understand a person and his or her story until you know who they are, who they were, who their people were, and where they come from – and so we learn all of these things, in an ever-expanding web as we see the histories and perspectives of everyone whose life touches Mary Byrd’s during the course of the book. Virtually every character has their lives upended during the span of the novel, to a greater or lesser extent, whether by the resurrection of old tragedy, the stunning shock of new tragedy, or simply dealing with the ice storm. As a result, we see them all as fundamentally human: for the most part good-intentioned, sometimes selfish, sometimes truly appalling, all flawed, mixed-up, confused and contradictory.
Flying Shoes is a work of fiction, but it takes its inspiration from the still unsolved murder of the author’s stepbrother, which was front page news at the time. It seems as if Howorth is using this novel as a vehicle to explore, speculate and postulate: “How would things change? What would life be like if this very cold case were finally, finally solved? What would the impact and the ramifications be?” In the end, the answer is: Not much.
Oh, she feels some lifting of ancient lingering guilt, once the truth is finally known: her stepfather blamed her teenage “sluttiness” (insert exaggerated finger-quotes and massive quantities of sarcasm here) for contributing to Stevie’s death, lacking any better target for his grief, rage and venom, and over time she internalized a portion some of that, especially after one of the investigating detectives seemed to agree. It’s a relief, in that sense, to know that this was emphatically not the case, and that knowledge removes at least some weight from her shoulders.
In the end, even though the fictional crime has been solved, there’s no real sense of closure, of finality. The solution is ultimately anti-climatic, as stunning and shocking as it is. Too much time has passed, bringing with it too much baggage. Even now, with the culprit known, there’s a lot of remaining uncertainty – will the true culprit ever be brought to justice for his crime? Is there enough evidence remaining, untampered with, to achieve a conviction? And there have been far, far too many victims in the intervening years for there to be any satisfaction at this resolution. The detective’s phone call throws Mary Byrd’s life into temporary upheaval, but that’s all it is: temporary, before she returns to deal with the ordinary, day-to-day chaos that makes up her life.
P.S. Full disclosure: I especially love this book because Lisa Howorth is a colleague, a fellow indie bookseller. She and her husband Richard own Square Books in Oxford, MS, which was named the Publisher’s Weekly 2013 Bookstore of the Year!