Faith in a Dead-End Town

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Michael Morris’ sweet, sad-eyed new novel, Man in the Blue Moon, recalls great Southern literature: beloved works such as Olive Ann Burns’ Cold Sassy Tree and Fannie Flagg’s Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man. Set in a Spanish moss-draped, dead-end Florida town fittingly called Dead Lakes in the midst of World War I, the novel is the story of Ella Wallace, a middle-aged wife and mother who may be forgiven for wishing herself a widow. In every practical sense, she is one. Her no-account husband, Harlan, a charlatan and an opium addict, has abandoned her with three sons to raise, a general store to run and a crippling mortgage. In addition to these weighty woes, there’s also the irksome issue of a certain grandfather clock.

As is so often the case with put-upon people, Ella’s thoughts are occupied by her most manageable dilemma, the pending delivery of that cursed clock. Just prior to his disappearance, Harlan invested Ella’s last dime in a pricy timepiece scheduled to arrive on the docks of nearby Apalachicola, according to a notice Ella receives in the mail. Retrieving this package, Ella’s biggest concern is whether its postage has been paid. Little does she know that the coffin-shaped crate from the Blue Moon Clock Company amounts to a Trojan horse containing the makings of her undoing, and her deliverance.

Rather than a clock, the shipment contains a real, live man—and a good-looking man, at that. The blond-haired beauty, Lanier Stillis, has a mysterious past, befitting the kind of fellow who would have himself hammered into a box and mailed across the rural South. In Georgia, he may have murdered his wife. He might even be Harlan’s long-lost cousin, and possess the gift of healing. One thing is for sure: He’s definitely missing part of an ear as the result of a knife fight.

Assessing Lanier’s character is a bit of a gamble. It’s a gamble that Ella, a woman “on the verge of financial and emotional collapse,” is forced to make. Especially with crooked Clive Gillespie, the pockmarked fiend who holds her mortgage, breathing down her neck. A scorned former lover from her finishing-school past, Clive is after Ella and her property. He’s also determined to earn a hefty profit off the delusions of Brother Mabry, a cockamamy revivalist who firmly believes that the Garden of Eden was once located in Ella’s backyard. Brother Mabry, with money to burn, intends to establish Eden Everlasting, the ultimate religious retreat, on her land, and Clive intends to finagle it away from Ella in time to sell it to Mabry. Ella has other ideas.

Committed to keeping her acreage—the only thing of her beloved daddy’s that she hasn’t yet been forced to sell—Ella enrolls Lanier in a plan to help clear and sell her timber before Clive has the chance to foreclose. It’s backbreaking labor unfit for a lady, but Ella shows the same steely spirit that kept Scarlett O’Hara’s dainty feet planted on the red earth of Tara. And though Lanier, her new mail-order handyman, is certainly no Rhett Butler, he does reveal some unexpected strengths. With a full-lipped kiss, he cures Ella’s youngest son’s thrush. With his contagious good cheer, he stiffens her spine. And with his broad, rippling shoulders, he clears pine and cypress like nobody’s business. By the time Ella pays her mortgage, romance brews between them.

Unfortunately, there’s more brewing in Dead Lakes than a love affair. The finale of Man in the Blue Moon is a collision of the past and the present, and of faith and reason. The particulars of Lanier’s late wife’s death are called—explosively—into question. When his ex-brothers-in-law finally track him to Florida, the resulting showdown forever alters the town’s fate.

Beneath the artful intricacies of Morris’ tale is the lingering question of spiritual authenticity. On the surface, Lanier’s gifts appear as preposterous as Brother Mabry’s misguided schemes—or, for that matter, Ella’s gumption. At some point, each of the novel’s characters is blindly driven by illogical belief, held aloft by something as hopeful and crazy as Lanier’s plot to mail himself to fairer weather. Emerging from the characters’ stories is a poignant insight about the necessity of faith in the dreary, sometimes painful slog of life. When pressed, one of Morris’ most eloquent characters claims: “Do I understand miracles? Have I ever seen one? I don’t know. … But I do have faith enough to believe … with or without understanding.”

Robert Leleux is the author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy. His essays and articles have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine. Robert is currently at work on his second book, The Living End, to be published next year by St. Martin's Press, and an oral history of Texas legend Sissy Farenthold.