Description Brings the Past to Life

Description Brings the Past to Life

“Simple Things Beautifully Described”

By WTP Guest Reviewer Philip Lawton

Telling Sonny: A Novel by Elizabeth Gauffreau (New York, NY: Adelaide Books, December 1, 2018; 340 pages; $22.30).

Headshot of writer Philip Lawton
Philip Lawton

In Telling Sonny: A Novel, Elizabeth Gauffreau brings her extraordinary gift of observation to the insular world of inland America in the mid-1920s. Faby Gauthier, the central character, graduates from high school in 1924, but there is no mention of the Teapot Dome scandal, the three-way presidential election, or the xenophobic temper that led to severe restrictions on immigration, and jazz enters the story only when Slim White, America’s Favorite Hoofer, dances the black bottom on the backwater vaudeville circuit. “If I had to sit at a desk in an office for eight hours a day,” Slim says, “I don’t know how I’d ever stand it. I don’t know how other fellows do it.” Faby’s hasty marriage to Slim—his stage name—takes her from northern Vermont to central Alabama by way of off-season Atlantic City, snowbound Buffalo, and a dozen smaller cities before she reaches grimy Birmingham. Gauffreau portrays the performers as well as the ordinary people Faby meets on trains and in boarding houses so vividly that the story seems like her own recollected experience. In the process, she brings the young woman, and the times, authentically and memorably to life.

“After a year or so,” the novel begins, “the death knell marking the end of Faby’s marriage lost its resonance—yet it continued to toll, as steady and devoid of feeling as a metronome set in motion for someone who can’t keep time.” Gauffreau frames her story about the pregnant wife of a small-time vaudeville performer by setting the opening scene several decades later, in the Spring of 1952, in Faby’s home town, the village of Enosburg Falls, Vermont, where she works as a telephone switchboard operator. She learns that her former husband, Louis Kittell—Slim White—has died in an automobile accident. “So Louis had reneged on one last promise,” she thinks, “his promise to attend Sonny’s wedding, now only two weeks away.” But the story quickly turns back in time to Faby’s indefinable dissatisfaction and vague expectations after graduating from high school, her family life, her aimless wandering around the village, her excitement when a vaudeville show comes to the Opera House.

It’s here, when the story really begins, that Gauffreau’s capacity for unobtrusive, incidental description starts to shine, in a small town in northern New England, a few miles south of the Canadian border, almost a century ago. Kendall’s Spavin Cure business, for example, was already in decline, there was less demand for horse liniment in the age of the automobile, and the factory “looked like the place where Franklin County’s indigent and infirm should be housed, along with the orphans, wayward girls, delinquent boys, and those who were not deranged enough to be sent to the state hospital in Waterbury but still too peculiar to live amongst others in the village.” Anyone who has traveled in the north country fair has seen an industrial plant like this. The Fourth of July parade is a cavalcade of “shuffling old veterans who should have been kept at home in the shade, wheezing Souza marches, farmers’ wagons festooned with limp crepe paper streamers, Goofy Dolan dressed as Uncle Sam, and, inexplicably, a single Holstein clopping along with bunting draped over her back, led by a small boy also draped in bunting.” That unaccountable cow—Slim says, later, “I didn’t get the cow”—is the perfect detail. In another passage, Gauffreau visualizes the women of the house working together in the too-small kitchen, putting up apples for the winter: “coring and peeling, boiling and pulping, mashing and straining, not to mention sticky apple leavings stuck everywhere….” Simple things beautifully described.

Faby still lives at home after high school, with her bilingual French or French-Canadian family of origin, in a house that is, we sense, incommodious, dominated by Maman Aurore, Faby’s grandmother. Faby is close to her younger sister, Josephine, but her father is present only for meals, and her relationships with Maman and Maman Aurore are fraught, especially after the dancer gets her “in trouble” and she starts to experience morning sickness. One day Maman Aurore’s knitting is unusually emphatic, and Faby realizes, “The hateful old woman was knitting a pair of booties.” She fears the family will send her to stay with Tante Celeste in Maine, “a thin, pitiless woman in her nineties who was not only too mean to die but too mean even for the customary infirmities of old age, still chopping wood for that black monster of a cook stove herself,” and the throwaway details speak for themselves: we can see Tante Celeste just as plain as we can see the firewood and the cast-iron stove, we know her, we have always known her. But months later, when the heavily pregnant Faby leaves Louis on the road in Birmingham and makes the exhausting two-day train trip back to Enosburg Falls, Maman and Maman Aurore welcome her home, take her in, care for her lovingly, and it seems it is not they who have changed.

Telling Sonny is not flawless. The manuscript would have benefited from one more round of copyediting—Maman calls Faby “cher,” for instance, not “chère”—and the narrative frame is weak. Sonny learns of his peripatetic father’s death before Faby gets around to telling him, and he accepts it with utter equanimity (after all, he’s getting married). But the lapses are few. There are, importantly, no linguistic or technological anachronisms to distract from the people and the places Gauffreau describes so artfully. And the joy of reading this unhurried work is precisely in those people and those places.

First a philosophy teacher and then an investment professional at major insurance companies and commercial banks, Philip Lawton now writes narrative nonfiction in Albemarle County, VA. He earned the bachelor’s, licentiate, and doctorate degrees in philosophy in the French-speaking section of the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium), an MBA degree in Finance at Northeastern University (Boston, MA), and, in December 2019, a graduate certificate in international economic relations at American University (Washington, DC). His personal essays and memoir pieces have appeared in Cagibi, JuxtaProse Literary Magazine, The Bookends Review, Streetlight Magazine, and the Bangalore Review, among others. His short story “Learning by Heart” appears in WTP Vol. VIII #4.

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