Southern fiction is a double-edged sword: by genre alone, a Southern novel is bound to draw a certain number of readers, yet authors who venture too far into the potentially clichéd waters of Deep South literature risk alienating more readers than they attract. How can an author tell of the South without forgetting that the story must come before and even in spite of the work's setting? Carter Coleman does just that in his second novel, Cage's Bend.
As the novel opens, two brothers, Cage and Nick, line up on a cool Louisiana morning in 1977 for a high-school cross-country race. There is a lovingly devoted yet competitive edge to their relationship supported by the assumed idea that in sports, as in life, the best competitor will win. But as the events of the next three decades reveal, life is seldom that straightforward or fair. Told from the alternating perspectives of the three Rutledge brothers Cage, Nick and Harper as they mature into adulthood, this story of the unraveling of a close-knit family rings so authentic that passages often contain an almost shocking immediacy. The story's focal point is Cage, the handsome, talented older brother whose struggles with manic depression seem to come in direct proportion to the promise and endless possibility his young life once held. After a sudden tragedy strikes, what was once an idyllic domestic repose is shattered by a new reality and the ongoing conflict of mental illness.
The pain each character endures in his own particular fashion is made all the more real by the connection Coleman successfully forges between reader and character from the book's onset. The novel works for the simple reason that the characters in this fictive story feel real. In Cage's Bend, the talented new voice of Carter Coleman rises above the crowd of writers from the American South. One cannot but hope it is the beginning of a fine career.
Todd Keith is a writer and editor at Portico Magazine in Birmingham.