In 1961, Halley Martin returns to Homeland, Florida, from prison, after doing 20 years of hard time. His arrival nearly coincides with a fire that destroys the home of Preacher Ned Jeffries, who is severely burned in the blaze.

These two events in Richard Yancey's impressive debut novel aren't actually linked, but the men are. Halley (named for the comet) and Preacher Ned share not just an old acquaintance they each harbor an unquenchable passion for Ned's stunningly beautiful wife, Mavis.

Some 20 years before, Halley rashly committed a murder, apparently on Mavis' behalf, following an accusation of rape; he was a silent admirer of the young woman, who was the sheltered daughter of a wealthy businessman. Years later, Ned pressed an advantage afforded by financial necessity and managed to convince the mature and desperate Mavis to marry him.

A Burning in Homeland is really a fateful love triangle of a peculiarly Southern variety. Yancey, also an actor and playwright, exhibits a good feel for drama and atmosphere; his imagery is simply splendid. The language is lush, as befits the setting, and the characters often fall victim to their own overwrought emotions as Preacher Ned does during his climactic sermon (or tirade) on the occasion of his homecoming. And, as all the townsfolk expect, there's an inevitable march toward what Halley calls a "reckoning" between himself and the preacher.

But, also true to form, and to Richard Yancey's credit, the final confrontation demonstrates that there can be no making up for lost time or missed chances, no redeeming act of vengeance in answer to a perceived betrayal. There may only be tragic mistakes.

Mavis remarks to Halley that life is a compromise between necessity and desire. It's a simple and obvious truth, but, in his first novel, Yancey refreshes it with insight and vigor. Harold Parker writes from Gallatin, Tennessee.

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