ISBN 978-0-87565-578-9, Trade Paper, 224 pages, $22.50
May 31, 2014
"Hill Country Property"
Fiction Livingston Press,
ISBN 978-1-60489-1539 Hard cover, 284 pages, $30
ISBN 978-1-60489-1522 Trade paper, 284 pages, $18.95
September 10, 2015
In Jim Sanderson’s powerful and lyrically evocative new novel "Hill Country Property," Roger Jackson searches three states to find his estranged mother-in-law, Rebecca, only to be told that she has no intention of returning to the bedside of the dying husband she deserted one afternoon some thirty years before. “’No pleasure but meanness,” you know,” says Rebecca”—which rings a bell with Roger. “I recognized the quote, knew it was from something I had read but wasn’t sure what.” Sanderson no doubt recognizes that his readership is sharper than his narrator and will identify the words of “The Misfit,” the dark antagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Though Rebecca, having deserted her husband to enjoy herself in the “new age; sex, movies and college” of the sixties, self-describes as “The Villain,” “Misfit” probably suits her better. Indeed, such a label places her right in line with most of the characters in Hill Country Property, and right up Sanderson’s alley.
"Hill Country Property" is the eighth novel—in addition to two story collections—from the prolific fiction writer and professor of English at Lamar University. Readers will recognize Roger Jackson as the private detective from last year’s "Nothing to Lose," a P.I. operating in, of all places, twenty-first century Beaumont, Texas. In that book we find Roger as the kind of sleuth Denny’s management calls to shadow employees who dip from the till. Blood makes him “want to hurl.” He’s got education and a law degree behind him, but they are way behind him, as is his divorce and most of his hopes for having a healthy relationship with a woman he can stand. Roger considers Beaumont governed by three P’s: pine, petroleum, and Pentecostals, but three M’s might also be argued: meth, mayhem and murder. A darkly humorous, swamp-infused murder mystery as well as a character study, Nothing to Lose sets Roger amidst a “fraternity of losers, hard luckers, fuckups, social outcasts” and that fraternity’s gloomiest extremes of misfit psychology, with a few indications dropped now and then of some other life that existed “before I started fucking up.” That other life is the subject of the very different "Hill Country Property."
Anchored in the mid 1980’s, but encompassing American cultural developments going back before World War II, the novel serves as Roger’s prequel/backstory, but is much more, standing on its own as a classic Texas family saga. Struggling as he sees his marriage to his wife Victoria disintegrating, in this volume Roger digs into stories and remembrances—not to mention Thom McAnn shoe-boxes stuffed with letters and sealed with ancient rubber bands—to uncover the secret history of his extended relations-in-law. Part of the novel’s lyrical tone and appeal comes from its three part, time-leaping structure: much of the detective story in this case concerns how the saga is brought to light and becomes told. In addition, unlike Nothing to Lose, the dramatic conflicts here are closer to home than narcotics, homicide, or police procedure—and perhaps more satisfying and discomforting for that reason. The characters haven’t gotten crosswise with the law, but with their own experiences and decisions. A young couple faces the specter of abortion. A wife wrestles over whether her marriage has been a mistake. The idealism of the sixties runs headlong into the practical obstacles of keeping a job and raising a family.
Roger’s own parents would seem to take up little room in his personal family drama. His father returns from World War II and proceeds to 1.) live the American Dream and 2.) pester radical hippie/newspaper editor/law student Roger by attempting to force money on him he doesn’t want. Upon falling in love with Victoria, however, he finds in father-in-law, Henry Bolen, a completely different, almost mirror image story—and for that reason, for Roger, a story more worth discovering. Losing a finger at Normandy before he can fire a shot, Henry is shipped home and told “Your country owes you.” How will it pay? We learn how Henry becomes enamored of both precocious eighteen-year-old Rebecca and a parcel of land in Fischer, Texas. As in many of Sanderson’s works, it’s human weakness fueling the story that then unfolds, one of the author’s strengths being his understanding of how the most interesting among us struggle daily over whether to overcome our frailties, or nurture them. Henry falls prey to a beautiful Hill Country landscape that he cannot escape, converted to a true believer by a land that “seemed to make promises. It would cooperate with humans—grow their crops, nourish their desires, support their horse farms.” Opportunities for advancement on this property turn out to be as thin as Hill Country topsoil, and young Rebecca, stuck on this rural horse farm and taking care of two children, yearns for a different sort of nourishment. Ultimately and suddenly, she acts, and abandons the family in a way that reverberates deep into the next generation; the generation Roger marries into.
Although masterful with character, this novel is particularly about place—and not just the Hill Country as we also get “the spaghetti-like maze of San Antonio,” Austin with its “bizarre but interesting people . . . the kind you like to watch but not the kind you would want your kids to know,” Houston and more. The geographical stops underscore the rich diversity of Sanderson’s Texas: readers encounter a state that refuses reduction to iconic cowboy postage stamp representation. There are even a couple of side trips to experience the otherworldly atmosphere that has both attracted and befuddled many a Texan: Taos, New Mexico. These aren’t just travelogue notes, for as Henry’s health fades and he struggles to deliver the whole of his story into Roger’s hands—and convince him to find Rebecca for a last reconciliation—the question looms: just how attached to place should we be when we’re all headed for the same plot?
The time periods here inform the story, as do the country’s evolving expressions of gender roles. Like Rebecca’s betrayal, the muted threat of the repressed fifties (the era of, as Roger says, “earned sex”) and the failed Cultural Revolution promised by the sixties (“un-earned sex” and the free love that comes at so high a cost) both powerfully affect the development of the characters. Given its Hill Country setting, that a narrative thread linking the generations involves parallel skinny-dipping sessions in a spring-fed pool seems especially appropriate. And as his reconstruction of the Bolen family history occurs in the pivotal eighties, Roger’s quest also presents at once as personal journey and self-reflection on his own generation of baby boomers. “Because there are so many of us, we set the trends, get what we want. . . . And because there are so many of us, we compete with each other for everything.”
In this, the season of the "Mockingbird" and the "Watchman" it’s difficult to advise whether one should start with the lyrical "Hill Country Property" (the-prequel-that-was-[apparently]-written-first-but-published-later), or "Nothing to Lose" (the-sequel-that-was-published-first-but -written-later . . . ?) . . . or . . . but, never mind. The novels stand on their own, and if you get a bit of loveable, noble loser Roger Jackson and his story-spinning voice in one volume, you’ll want to go and get more of him in the other.