If William Faulkner is Southern literature's crazy uncle, then Michael Parker would be its straight-talking cousin. Unlike so many writers born below the Mason-Dixon, Parker does not write about gross violence, incest, or crazy preachers. In fact, the families in his fiction just want to get along. His 2001 novel Towns Without Rivers revolved around a brother and sister separated by a country and an attitude toward home. In his latest book, Virginia Lovers, Parker returns to the backwoods town of Trent, North Carolina, and conjures two brothers also in need of a rapprochement.
Pete and Daniel Edgecombe are nearing the end of high school on different paths. Brilliant and naturally cool, Pete spends his days in a purple haze, rolling joints to the backbeat of Rolling Stones songs. Daniel, meanwhile, has overachieved his way to the top of his class. And in his senior year he piles on extra activities to qualify for scholarships. Like Pete, he yearns to leave Trent and will even play football if that will buy him a ticket north.
As in his previous work, Parker demonstrates a rich and sensitive understanding of family. In Virginia Lovers, he gives his dual protagonists a powerful patriarch in the person of Thomas Edgecombe, a once up-and-coming journalist who has settled into overworking himself at a weekly newspaper. Thomas clearly enjoys Daniel's success and the low demands it makes on him. Pete, by contrast, worries him, though Thomas wants to give the boy some space to "experiment."
This blissful state of ignorance evaporates when a gay teenager is murdered and shortly thereafter Daniel and Pete hit the road in their '68 Falcon. From here Virginia Lovers spins off into a curious and sometimes affecting road novel. The boys know something about the murder and they're scared of what will happen to them if they testify. Leaving, however, makes them suspects.
In the car, with their guard down and the windows open, the brothers begin to realize how similar they are--two halves of the same personality. Even though Pete and Daniel have acted rashly and selfishly, we want to cheer them on. Parker helps us to appreciate the rush of freedom by describing their adventure in prose so green it nearly drips with innocence. At the University of Virginia they spend a day reveling in their anonymity: "Hours to kill. They slayed them with more pot and a pitcher of beer at a pizza parlor and a walk through the chilly streets of Charlottesville, which was ringed with squat mountains, blue misty hills corralling them there and blocking out all they had left behind."
Parker is such a beautiful prose writer that it's baffling why he relies so much on dialogue to move the brothers close together. While some bits are okay, a good deal of it sounds like extracts from a particularly yearning episode of Dawson's Creek. At one point, Daniel brays to his little brother, "This is the first time in a year or two, maybe longer, that we've had a conversation longer than two or three minutes, and it's all because you heard something about me that might do some damage to your reputation as Mr. Super Cool."
Here and elsewhere, Parker's characters commit the highly implausible act of saying exactly what they mean. In fact, throughout Virginia Lovers, the brothers, their father, and even their mother, communicate seamlessly. Without the friction of miscommunication, the plot feels overblown and hard to understand. Parker ultimately surmounts that shortcoming, lending his melodrama a momentum that is very hard to resist. Yet one can't help but wonder if this book's grim situation might have turned out differently: If this family was so good at talking to one another, why didn't they explain away all their damaging secrets?