Southern values, California style
Truely Noonan Jr., the protagonist of Nanci Kincaid's gentle, humorous, rambling novel, Eat, Drink, and Be From Mississippi, is a man wandering around in a sort of fog. His situation isn't dire; he's a wealthy inventor and has been since he was barely out of college. He has a vast apartment in San Francisco. His wife has left him and his romantic life since then has been tepid, but that hardly makes him out of the ordinary. His parents are gone, but at his age that's not very exceptional either. He has no children. His best link to his happy Mississippi childhood is his sister Courtney, who's as aimless as he is. She too has been dumped by her spouse, she too is rich, and she too is childless. Then, Arnold shows up in their lives.
Arnold is one of the people on the periphery of Truely's love life; he's a friend of Truely's on-again, off-again girlfriend's brother. When Arnold is sent to San Francisco for a job, he moves in with Truely, or more accurately, invades his space; he insists, with an astonishing sense of entitlement, to be left out of nothing in Truely's life. Still, both Truely and Courtney take to him, and she especially sees him as a project, feeding him Southern food and drilling him while he works toward his GED. Arnold gets into scrapes from which the siblings must continually rescue him, but the young man has become family to the Noonans, and when you're from Mississippi, standing by family is the thing that's done.
Kincaid, the author of five books and a Southerner-turned-Californian herself, fills her story with a rich stew of characters. There's Truely and Courtney's parents, both kind and God-fearing, save the genteel racism that forbids them from letting Truely's one black friend inside their home. There's Truely's passionate first wife Jesse, and his sometime girlfriend Shauna, who lapses into bitterness when her brother, Arnold's friend, is wounded in Iraq. There's Courtney's ponytailed ex-husband and the mouseburger he leaves her for, and Arnold's sweet baby sister and their grandmother, awed by the kind attention shown them by the Noonans. You leave Eat, Drink, and Be From Mississippi with a sense of gratitude for human goodness.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.