Southern Comfort

Dorothy Allison

Dorothy Allison has a knack for controversy. Her acclaimed first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, was overlooked for a Lambda Literary Award because it wasn't considered lesbian enough. And the book was belittled by Katie Roiphe for dwelling on the topic of incest. One expects that Allison's second novel, Cavedweller, will probably be controversial as well for continuing to propagate the same outrageous assumption: that women--not men--are the real emotional center of women's lives.

On its surface, the story is pure Southern melodrama. Delia Byrd, after the sudden death of her rock-star lover in California, returns to the small town of Cayro, Georgia, to seek out the daughters she abandoned more than a decade before. Then, she was fleeing from an abusive husband, Clint, but it is a different Delia who returns to town along with her other teenage daughter, Cissy, born of the rock-star romance. Vilified by the Cayro's townspeople and estranged from her elder daughters, Amanda and Dede, Delia nevertheless begins to remake her life in Cayro with the help of her oldest friend.

Cavedweller traverses Allison's usual terrain of small-town Southern life, in which class and kin, sex and violence, love and faith are inextricably woven. Though Allison is a skillful polemicist and has authored several books of nonfiction, including the 1994 Lambda Literary Award-winning essay collection Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature, she manages to keep her novel free of any preaching. Whether portraying Delia's Bible-thumping daughter, Amanda, or the abusive husband, Allison manages to convey the complex humanity of her characters. And the novel's drama is motivated more by the question of who the characters are than by what happens next.

Similarly, Delia's quest to reunite her family might be seen as an excuse to offer a portrait of a small Southern town and to create an epic evocation of its bloodlines. Cayro, in a sense, is another character in Cavedweller, as ravaged by time and history as its citizens are. "Cayro, Georgia, was just another patch off the side of Highway 75," Allison writes. "Most people on their way north from Atlanta never saw it. Downtown consisted of a triangular intersection no bigger than a good-sized basketball court. There was a sign that read WELCOME on one side and COME BACK SOON on the other."

As this scene conjures images of kudzu and sweating pavement, sometimes Cavedweller reads as if it's got the imprint of a movie-to-be: quaint settings, eccentric characters, snappy dialogue, and Technicolor imagery. When Cissy and Delia stop at a flea market in Arizona on their way east, the scene takes on the sweeping perspective of the big screen: "There was a loud pop, and Cissy turned to see a bunch of red and blue balloons tied to a Rockhound Camping sign, bouncing in the warm gusts that swept trash along the ground.... People moved through the dust as she watched. A few flat, seamed faces turned in her direction.... These were ageless people, tanned dark, with black or white or gray hair and ropy muscles." Cissy stops here, among the lawn chairs and mobile homes, and looks over a plate of polished rocks. "'Ah.' The old woman thumped the card table, and all the stones moved. 'Hematite is special.... You know that? Special. Draw your hatred out.' She gathered a string of cut stars, lifted it, and extended her hand.... 'Heal your heart, girl.'"

As with this scene, at the core of Allison's book is the fascination women feel for other women; men's violence may set events in motion, but women are the ones who carry on, together. From the pleasure of a shampoo at the beauty parlor to the intimacy of female competition, the nuanced relations among women are lovingly evoked. This is nowhere more evident than in the contradictory attractions and repulsions Delia's daughters feel for one another: "'You are going to hell,' [Amanda] told Cissy every morning, and 'To hell,' she said again when they passed in the bathroom. Cissy said nothing in reply. What she felt was certainly not to be admitted. It was Amanda's expression, Cissy thought, her bright, determined eyes. Her voice was so sincere, her words, the smell of her--a girl who would not compromise. Against her will, Cissy was enthralled. Amanda was magnificent, and they were of the same blood."

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