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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Colorful story, characters upstaged by author's intrusions, 16 Feb 2002
By A Customer
This review is from: Deep in the Shade of Paradise - a Novel (Hardcover)
Reviewed by John Schacht

Welcome to John Dufresne's Louisiana backwater, Shiver-de-Freeze (population 375), where folks sport handles like "Jinx," "Comfort," and "Ferlin," declare their amorous intentions on the local water tower, say things like "yonder," "fetched," and "you might could have," and refer to their kin as being "high tempered," "weak in the intellectuals," or "economical with the truth."
Yes, Dufresne's new novel, "Deep in the Shade of Paradise," is chock-full of the homespun cornpone and magical touches that made his first full-length, "Louisiana Power & Light," a darling among critics on both sides of the Mason Dixon line. Sadly, his new work, a sequel of sorts, does not build on the success of the previous story but instead bogs down in the author's inability to keep out of his colorful characters' way.
"Deep in the Shade of Paradise" ostensibly chronicles the eve of Grisham Loudermilk's marriage to Ariane Thevenot. But Grisham's cousin Adlai - who falls in love with the bride-to-be -- and the groom's philandering ways threaten to derail the wedding. Adlai's reckless crush is conducted even as his mother passes away; his father struggles with the onset of Alzheimer's; the priest renounces his celibacy; his cousin gives birth; and a pair of conjoined twins fall for 11-year-old Boudou, an eidetic who happens to be the last of Fontana clan, the "most executed white family" in Louisiana history (and the protagonists of Dufresne's first novel).
But what should be a story rich in possibilities is marred by Dufresne's multiple forays into the text - both as author and narrator - which come across as a misguided and often insulting attempt to help the reader "get it:"
"Complications arise from the conflicting needs of narrator and author," Dufresne barges in at one point. "We tell the story, but he writes it. Our needs are literary and dramatic; his needs are emotional and, frankly, embarrassing. Our author - and we don't mean to be coy here - seems driven by a lamentable and peculiar need to be loved by his characters..."
"Coy" is exactly how Dufresne comes across in this Creative Writing 101 lecture. Earlier, in a chapter portentously entitled, "Plots Are for Graveyards," the story grinds to a halt for six interminable pages while Dufresne engages the reader in an "inescapable, significant, and illuminating" digression on the nature of - digressions.
Then, in a sublime non sequitur recalling a thousand self-help titles, Dufresne asks the reader to "write their own digression," conscientiously providing a blank page for the task. Thank you, Mr. Reading on the Left Side of the Brain.
This disconcerting interruption effectively kills any momentum the story has. The digressions that follow - and many might have been "significant" and "illuminating" - seem tainted by these readers' club-like injunctions.
It's too bad. Dufresne is a talented writer, at his best when summoning scenery, developing sympathetic protagonists and exchanging rapid-fire dialogue. He juggles multiple plot lines like spinning plates (until the interruptions), and his portrayal of Adlai's father, Royce, as he slips into the fog of Alzheimer's, is wonderfully poignant.
Dufresne can also be funny. One character recalls her "Acapulco" solo singing debut; another claims Adlai would make a good preacher "if we could just get you to believe in Jesus Christ;" another suggests that even though he's no "Norman Einstein," he's "commenced to think."
It would be shooting fish in a barrel to ridicule these bayou trailer dwellers if Dufresne didn't have a knack for making them sympathetic, as he did in "Louisiana Power & Light." The problem with "Deep in the Shade of Paradise" is that Dufresne has to remind the reader of his largesse. When two characters discuss an article in the Quarterly Review of Southern Literature, in which the author (of the article) claims that Southern fiction has become "a sanctuary for deviants, monsters, freaks, the miserable, the evil, and the downtrodden," Dufresne's characters want to know what's so grotesque "about girls with wooden legs or farmers with snaggled teeth, or alcoholics or dirt roads or unbottled water..."
"Relax," one character says to the other, "nobody pays any mind to academics. They're just writing for each other. It's a pissing contest."
A "pissing contest" the reader, like it or not, is suddenly and inexplicably party to.
Finally, Dufresne injects himself into the text one last time, claiming to be "frustrated" with his own book, and threatening to "write a memoir like everyone else is doing."
It seems like a cheap shot, one Dufresne and his readers could have done without if only the author had stuck to his characters' own stories.
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Deep in the Shade of Paradise - a Novel
Deep in the Shade of Paradise - a Novel by John Dufresne (Hardcover - 27 Mar 2002)
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