Review: Bastard out of Carolina (a novel)

Book coverBASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA : a novel, by Dorothy Allison. Dutton Books (imprint of Penguin), 1992. 320 pp. ISBN 9780525934257

I am in awe of this book. It was given to me but sat on my shelf for years, through at least one house move, until I decided this month that I might as well give it away. That’s when I opened it and glanced at the first lines.

Now that I’ve finished the book, I am personally grateful to Dorothy Allison for putting in the gigantic labor that it takes to make a story this good — especially one that draws on so much dangerous material from the author’s own life.

Where shall I begin? This is a story about people stuck at the bottom rung of the Greenville, South Carolina class system — surplus people living with shame, confusion, and bottled-up rage, which they often direct against themselves and each other. Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright is born to a 14-year-old mother, Anney, and both daughter and mother grow up fast. Bone sometimes leans on, sometimes strains against the bonds of family. Through her eyes, all the cousins, aunts, uncles, and surrogate fathers are so many unique, wonderful and terrible human beings. Their desire and pain cannot be waved away just because they are “white trash” (a term people still use without even a touch of irony).

Yet the book doesn’t just invert the usual standard of blame and praise; least of all does it preach. Even the people who grin with pleasure over the humiliation of Bone’s people are not allowed to become mere types themselves. Allison invites us to glimpse the souls even of minor characters who seem silly and self-deluding. There’s even a spark of desperate yearning within the vicious Daddy Glen, and we gain searing insight into the way a family instinctively forms a screening hedge around a man who preys on a girl. We also see why Bone cultivates burning hatred and numb meanness as sources of strength and self-protection. But she isn’t allowed to get away with it, not completely, not as long as her demoralized mother, crazy aunts, and drunken uncles keep trying to show their love.

Bastard out of Carolina spells out the closely guarded, unspoken wisdom of a brilliant child outcast, forced too early into adulthood, where she must struggle for a life worth living. I think the book is an amazing, almost miraculous achievement. Allison writes about the physical pain and burning emotions of an exploited child with the knowledge of one who has felt these things herself. She also has the discipline of a great writer, so her passion never gets the best of her plain, fine English. There is no lecturing in this book, and only one or two places where I thought things could possibly be improved on. Aspiring novelists should study this book as a model. There is always enough there to be fully convincing, and never too much.

Still, this is not a book for everyone. Some readers will be disgusted by the frank descriptions of masturbation and sexual fantasy as guilty adolescent pleasures. Even though this is a short novel, some readers will chafe at the time it takes to get to know Bone’s extended family as distinct human beings. A few readers, I expect, will just refuse to admit the upsetting Boatwrights into their imaginations. Instead, they’ll make them wait on the front porch while they summon the thought police to pack them off to allegorical jail. (Those trashy people! How dare they live lives that can’t be summed up with an Aesop moral! Don’t they know they are fictional characters?)

I think everyone who finishes the book will have difficulty forgetting it. Consider yourself warned.

I’m still giving away my copy, as promised. But I expect I’ll have to borrow another one someday for a second reading.

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One thought on “Review: Bastard out of Carolina (a novel)

  1. I wasn’t sure about this book at all after I finished it yesterday. I couldn’t figure out if I loved the story, but hated the pace, or the other way around. However, your review made me look at it from a completely different perspective, so thank you. It was definitely more beautiful through your eyes. : )

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