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Is It God or Alzheimer’s?

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Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale is reminiscent of the early works of Larry McMurtry and Edward Swift. Set in a small Texas town on the final day of the 20th century, Lynda Rutledge’s debut novel amounts to a feminist retelling of the parable of Jesus and the rich young ruler. For those of you who are a trifle rusty on your New Testament, that’s the one where Jesus tells a dapper lad seeking eternal life to sell all his possessions and give the dough to the poor. “Then,” says Jesus, “you will have treasure in heaven.” A more vivid indictment of our modern mania for acquisition seems difficult to imagine. And yet, in her wry and witty voice, Rutledge has given the tale, if not greater power, at least a contemporary twist. Her book raises the question: Can American materialism be compatible with the life of the spirit?

In the case of our imperious heroine, Faith Bass Darling, the answer is, from the start, a resounding no. On the first page of the novel’s preface, she receives this ruling on the best of authority: God’s. On the eve of the millennium, God speaks to Mrs. Darling, and what he says gives her quite a shock: Sell all your possessions and prepare to enter the land beyond the blue.

Within 24 hours.

But was it really God’s voice that came to her “like soft lightning” in the night, or was it merely a phantom of Faith’s wavering memory? Her recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis makes everyone in the novel wonder, except Faith. Despite her “wildly dancing” memories, only she possesses absolute clarity. A 70-year-old, eminently respectable, Baptist dowager, Faith is the Brooke Astor of her two-horse town. With her poise, pocketbook and sense of propriety, she’s called the shots in Bass, Texas, all her life, issuing commands from the cool recesses of her Victorian mansion, which brims with Versailles-caliber antiques.

These antiques have been cherished by generations of Faith’s family. They seem reliquaries of her ancestors’ souls, as well as stately extensions of her own poker-faced countenance. (Fourteen years earlier, she even parted ways with Claudia, her only daughter, over an argument about the rightful place of a particularly comely diamond-and-pearl ring.) Nevertheless, bright and early on December 31, 1999, Faith Bass Darling starts dragging her worldly goods onto her sloping lawn, selling them for rock-bottom prices at an impromptu garage sale. And by rock bottom, we’re talking the kind of cash that clinks and jangles: Nickels and dimes for genuine Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps, Dresden china, a luminous Louis XV clock … .

To local bargain shoppers, Faith’s garage sale is a dream come true. But to those who know and love her, it amounts to a rather weighty moral dilemma: Is it ethical to allow a sick old lady to dispose of her prized possessions in such an unremunerative manner? Is her determination to host this speedy sale merely a manifestation of her mental decline? Or could it possibly be that Faith is correct, and that, somehow, all her earthly sorrows will soon be carried away as swiftly as her clearance-priced Victorian wingback chairs?

Gradually, the scope of Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale broadens to include a madding crowd of Bass natives. From Deputy Sheriff John Jasper Johnson, whose dreams of football stardom were cut short long ago in a tragic accident, to Father George Fallow, an Episcopal priest with an intermittent grasp upon his calling, the author successfully creates a panoply of characters abuzz with life and humor. By novel’s end, through a pleasing series of startling coincidences (and just possibly a dash of divine intervention), Faith Bass Darling faces her demons and dark family secrets, and meets the millennium in a burst of glory and fireworks.

Reading Rutledge’s novel brought back my own millennial experiences in Huntsville, a town that in late 1999 seemed ready and eager for a Y2K catastrophe or Armageddon, anything to assuage its blinding sense of collective boredom. Adept at gently mocking the small-mindedness of small towns and celebrating the expansiveness of small-town souls, the author crafts a tale of love, identity and redemption—not to mention some killer discount shopping.

Contributing writer Robert Leleux is the author of two books, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving.