Grit Lit Part I: Review of The Palms, a Novel by Clay Anderson
I met Clay Anderson through the Etowah Valley MFA Creative Writing program at Reinhardt University where he is a current student and where he also teaches history. He shared a William Gay book with me that summer and I discovered a compatriot of Grit Lit—a genre I had to explain to a New York agent this past summer while describing my own novel. If you have to explain…. well…I’ll say no more. I’m pleased that Clay has continued in a tradition that I so greatly admire and that in my opinion needs more voices. I hope you enjoy this review. Anderson’s The Palms has also been nominated for Georgia Author of the Year under the first novel category. Make sure to get a copy. This post is part one of three posts. Look for an interview between Clay Anderson and myself next week followed by a guest blog by Anderson on the Grit Lit genre.
An unlikely union of the rejected come together in Clay Anderson’s novel, The Palms, to form a dysfunctional family that simply works. Mary is a precocious seven-year-old girl who is largely neglected by her mother, Clara, and way too wise in the ways of the world, yet finds a father figure in ex-con, Ronnie. Clara is a meth-addicted prostitute battling addiction and years of abuse but is seeking redemption. Ronnie, a Vietnam vet who served thirty years for murder, lost his wife and daughter while in prison, becomes both a father to Mary and an ally to Clara. They are connected geographically by The Palms trailer park in Pensacola, Florida—a place inhabited by the downtrodden. While there are no white picket fences at The Palms, Ronnie stands out as a model neighbor, keeping what little he has pristine. These are hardscrabble folk that live on the fringes of society and while they may not live like the majority, they love like anyone else.
The Palms is a Southern Gothic novel, with clear influences from the likes of William Gay and Cormac McCarthy, but Anderson has his own style and the imagery. The prose is poetic and at times layered, yet doesn’t come off as heavy as his predecessors. In this scene, Ronnie “confesses” or reveals his darkest secrets to Clara: “Ronnie kept speaking as if Clara wasn’t in the room. Like he was spilling out his soul to a higher being and she just happened along as a spectator by accident. He spoke like a man imbued with a weighty burden. His words sounded like a benediction. His red eyes rapidly tracing something that wasn’t there. As if he was reading a script against the wall” (85). You could leave off one of these images or sentences, but it’s better with it than without out. In the above example, the concrete image is one of Ronnie confessing and the more abstract images are used to heighten and hone in on that image.
There is, of course, the religious and spiritual symbolism that these images convey as well. These characters are healing—healing and redemption being a prominent theme in The Palms. Ronnie has an almost Zen-like disposition. Even though he’s a man with a past, he has grown and can leave his past behind. Ronnie’s character is enlightened, whereas, the other characters still have room to grow. Unfortunately, this makes him expendable. Ronnie, for all his rough ways is a lamb, a sacrificial lamb and goes to his death, much like Christ, fully aware of what is at stake.
One of my favorite things about Anderson’s novel is his treatment of addiction. I haven’t read many novels that explore the depths of addiction in a pseudo Big Book sort of way. Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep comes to mind: a book for addicts by an addict. Most are familiar with King’s struggles with alcoholism. When Clara hits rock bottom, death becomes a viable option to escape addiction: “She passed waving dunes of white sand on her right. Beyond was the vastness of the Gulf, at times a beauty without measure. With withdrawal taking over, Clara imagined stripping naked and wading out into the cool surf. Letting the endless tide take her away. Like a great anti-baptism that wrought none of the forgiveness. Instead stole her and allowed the internal darkness to settle. Peace, finally anointed in death” (73). Clara cleans up, goes to meetings, works the steps, and falls down again. That is the nature of the disease. One of the saddest scenes is when Clara tosses away her sobriety at Chili’s for a neon icy drink. The problem with her fall is that it has monumental consequences with horrific and even murderous results and takes down more than just herself. Anderson goes on a dark roller coaster with Clara and the reader rides along, knowing her brief recovery is the calm before the storm—and what a storm it turns out to be. There is a clear message here regarding addiction. It’s isn’t suffered alone, and as such, requires more than yourself to combat it. The ending offers hope not just for the characters, but for readers that may relate, personally, who have possibly been down this road and came out a recovered addict, or had a friend or family member in recovery or worse, didn’t recover, or died. That’s the hard truth of the disease. Anderson knows his stuff; it makes you wonder how close he got to characters like Clara, but writers are also great observers.
The Palms has its violent moments, really dark spaces, and is TV-MA for sure. If you are a fan of Grit Lit, Redneck Noir, the “Rough South” writers, or whatever you want to call this genre of Southern literature, this is a novel you will want to read. Although the brutality and pure evil of humanity is explored throughout The Palms, it is balanced by some really touching and poignant moments. You may not like the ending. Anderson mentioned that someone unfollowed him on Facebook after finishing his novel. I actually thought the ending was appropriate. Not everything can be wrapped up with a bow. The ending offered a sense of renewed faith in humankind, but it is a flawed humanity. Perhaps, the best way to describe the ending is to use a term I’m not even sure exists–melancholic optimism.
To purchase a copy of The Palms on Amazon.
Clay Anderson Bio:
Clay Anderson is an Adjunct Professor of History at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia. He received his BA in History from Kennesaw State University and MA from Mississippi State University. He has seven diverse publications in fiction and non-fiction. These publications include two non-fiction book reviews in Texas Books in Review and East Texas Historical Journal, one non-fiction article in the Journal of Big Bend Studies, and four fiction short stories in the Fourth World Journal, Adelaide Literary Award Anthology 2019 and 2020, and The Bangalore Review. He is currently an MFA student in Creative Writing at Reinhardt University. The Palms is his first novel and was nominated for Georgia Author of the Year under the first novel category. Clay lives in the North Georgia mountains with his two dogs and has recently opened a bookstore called the Bear Book Market in Dahlonega, Georgia.